I just wrote the following in an email to some friends. I thought it might interest others.
First, note that it’s called “gomel“, from a key word in the text of the berakhah. But it’s the same /גמל/ as “gemillus chasadim“. It means to support over time, rather than a single moment of loving-kindness. (The same root yields “gamal“, “camel”.) We make the blessing when we can feel G-d’s chesed, but the topic of the blessing is the continued chesed we get over an entire lives.
The gomel blessing is associated with life-saving situations. Which then raises the question of whether crossing the sea or the desert by airplane should really be on the list.
However, those who coined the berakhah were doing so as a stand-in for the qorban Todah, the Thanksgiving offering, which in turn was associated in particular with four kinds of rescue. In other words, anyone may offer such a sacrifice, but anyone who experienced one of these four were obligated to.
Rav Yehudah says in the name of Rav (Berakhos 54b): Four must express gratitude: Those who go down to the sea, those who cross the desert, one who was ill and was cured, and one who was imprisoned and was released.
(In Igeros Moshe (Orach Chaim 2:59) R’ Moshe Feinstein rules that the rule about saying gomel whenever crossing the sea is really about whenever one isn’t on land. Historically, this meant being over water, but today would include airplane flight. He therefore requires gomel after transcontinental flights even if no major bodies of water are crossed. Another modern debate is that many who do not rule like Rav Moshe Feinstein still require benching gomel when crossing the Great Salt Lake in Utah, whereas others do not. What is a “sea” for this purpose?)
This list is based on Psalms 107‘s descriptions of the times we called out to Hashem during the Exodus and He saved us. The connection to the Psalm is also cited by Rashi on the verse describing the offering, Lev. 7:12.
The Vilna Gaon spells out how Rav’s list occurred in the Exodus: (1) Going down into the Red Sea, (2) crossing the Sinai desert, (3) being cured from the whipping and other torture of the Egyptians, and (4) leaving servitude.
Connecting the sacrifice and therefore the blessing to the Exodus would make the fact that there are four items on the list more tantalizing. It echoes the four cups of wine at the seder, and the explanations and meanings given for them.
But what all this says to me (now for the personal observation) is that gomel isn’t only about being saved. The Exodus was a visible demonstration of the “Hand” of G-d in history and in human events. The visible demonstration which is placed at the foundation of Judaism. Gomel is particularly mandatory when we have a shadow (I already used “echoes” last paragraph) of that experience in our own lives.
Combining this with my opening thought about “gomel” and the idea that the blessing is really about the constant chesed in our lives that just happens to be more obvious at the moment, and we get:
“Bentching gomel” is a recognition that all those little gifts from G-d that are all to easy take for granted are no less thanks-worthy than this major event which I can’t overlook, and teach me the lesson of the Exodus — that Hashem is constantly bestowing His Good to me.