The Birkat Hamazon, also known as Grace after Meals, is among the most ancient prayers in the Jewish liturgy. Composed of many blessings, depending on holiday, day of the week and what has been eaten, it is comprehensive and thanks Hashem for not only the food but many other blessings at the same time. In addition to that, it also beseeches Hashem in the midst of thanksgiving for continued blessing so that we may continue to thank Hashem in the future.
So why not just mutter a simple "thanks" for what we have eaten and move on with it? Why does all this continued blessing, thanks and supplication come in just over a simple meal? Our Sages, being comprehensive and thoughtful, actually are helping us accomplish more than expressing simple gratitude. Beyond a mere thanks, we are engaging in far-reaching measures through our expression of blessings; this after-meal formula seeks to procure future blessings, future food and well-being. It's like going to the gas station, filling up your tank, and electing to procure future tanks of gas at the same time.
During the first blessing, we do thank Hashem for giving food to all creatures and extol His name. Within that blessing of thanksgiving, we also ask that He would continue to help us so that we can continue to give Him thanks. It comes full-circle and is framed in such a way that mutual blessing allows continued mutual blessing. This blessing is the most straightforward in its application, and most would find this to have little mystery after eating a sandwich or any meal.
Where this formula starts to diverge from what we would perceive as necessary is the second blessing, as it relates to our opening verse above. In this second blessing, now we are blessing Hashem for the land, making us free, giving us the Torah and all of the mitzvot, and His miracles which support us in every day and hour. This goes beyond the food, which is the reason we are saying the Birkat Hamazon in the first place. As we continue with the third and fourth blessings, we ask that Hashem rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple, and thank Hashem for being good to us as well as His continued goodness. In addition, there are various blessings for holidays, Shabbat and other occasions to be inserted as appropriate.
Why? Why can't we say a simple blessing relating to the food and move on with it? Even shortened versions of the Birkat Hamazon still have these various prescriptions for the blessings condensed, so as to make sure we don't omit these required elements. What gives?
it's all connected
It's more than just a nosh. More than just a bowl of "red stuff", as Esav so boorishly requested. Food is not just a means to satisfy our stomachs but something which readies us for the performance of mitzvot, brings us to higher yearning for the Temple, causes us to seek the Messiah to return, and is the means to help us perform the divine will. By recalling our exodus from Mizrayim and all the miracles Hashem did for us, we connect food with life, true happiness and our Creator. This comprehensive thankfulness is a means to truly appreciate what food is. It is tasty to be sure, but it is so much more.
The next time you have a meal, savor each bite and take in more than the flavors. Begin meditating on the themes mentioned above even before you have to say the Birkat Hamazon. I can almost guarantee that the blessing you will make when you are finished eating will not only have more meaning, but will roll with sweetness from your mouth as you contemplate the fullness of what you have received.