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In this week’s Torah Portion, we will read about the births of Ya’acov Avinu’s 11 sons.
The story of Ya’acov and his wives is one of the wonderful stories in the Torah, with many sides and angles, each containing morals and lessons for us to learn. One of the interesting subjects in the story is the manner in which names were given to each of Ya’acov’s sons.
Each son that was born was given a name of great significance whose meaning is detailed in the Torah. For example, the name “Reuven” was given by Leah to her eldest son because “ra’a Hashem be’onya” (Hashem saw her despair), and “Shimon” was given his name because “shama Hashem et tfilata” (Hashem heeded her prayer).
Leah named her fourth son “Yehuda,” and explained the meaning when she said “ha’apaam odeh et Hashem” (This time I will thank G-d). Leah thus expressed her deep sense of gratitude in the name Yehuda, and indirectly in the name of the entire Jewish nation: ha’am hayehudi.
This sense of gratitude was so strong that the Talmud said about it as follows: Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said: Since the day that the Blessed Be He created His world, there was no one who thanked Him until Leah came and thanked Him. (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Brachot, page 7) When we focus on the significance of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s words, they raise a difficult question: Could this be? Didn’t Avraham Avinu thank G-d? Didn’t Yitzhak and Ya’acov thank Him? Didn’t all the people who came to know the Creator because of Avraham Avinu thank Him? Is it conceivable that Leah was actually the first person to recognize the obligation and need to thank G-d? When we carefully look at the secret of Leah’s gratitude, we understand why she is indeed considered the first person to thank G-d. If we think that Leah’s life was comfortable and worry-free, the Torah teaches us that actually, the opposite was true. Leah’s life was difficult and bitter, full of worries and suffering.
The Torah describes Leah as having “soft” eyes. Why were her eyes “soft”? Our sages explain that it was because she cried so frequently.
And what did she cry about? She was meant to marry Esau, Ya’acov’s unfavorable brother. She was the older of Laban’s daughters and Esau was the older of Yitzhak’s sons, so it was decided that the older would marry the older, Esau and Leah, and the younger would marry the younger, Ya’acov and Rachel. This worry weighed upon her and caused her to cry so much that it affected her eyes.
Even after her concerns were abated and she married Ya’acov, it was a marriage based on trickery. Her father, Laban the cheater, tricked Ya’acov and had him marry Leah instead of Rachel, her younger sister. We can only imagine how a bride would feel on her wedding night knowing that at any given moment, the groom will find out he was tricked and that she is not the bride he wanted.
Indeed, after Ya’acov found out he had been deceived, the Torah tells us that Leah was the less-beloved wife in Ya’acov’s house.
Leah undoubtedly had a hard and bitter life.
But through this bitterness, Leah saw a ray of light when her son Yehuda was born, and she was quick to thank G-d. This gratitude was not only for the birth of her son, but since this was a ray of light in a life which was dark and dreary. Leah recognized the good in every situation; in every hardship she was able to reveal that same ray of light which illuminated the entire reality and for this she thanked G-d.
This kind of gratitude, therefore, was never heard before. Leah was the first to recognize the good within the hardship. As it has been said, even in what was hidden, G-d could be found.
It is important to note that the person who pointed to Leah being the first to thank G-d in this way was none other than Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, about whom the Talmud says that he suffered terribly throughout his life, hiding for 13 years in a cave eating only carob and drinking only water. As a poet has said, he hid from the decree in a cave where he learned the secrets of the Torah, and he knew to thank G-d for them.
It was he who recognized Leah’s special importance as an example and symbol of accepting hardships with love.
There is a story about one of the legendary righteous of the Hassidic movement, Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli (Ukraine, 18th century).
When a student was sent by his rabbi to see how one can fulfill the words of the Mishna “One must bless G-d for the bad just as he blesses Him for the good,” he answered innocently, “I do not know how to explain this since nothing bad has ever happened to me...”
This story reflects the essence of Jewish faith, that every event that man experiences is precisely directed in order to benefit him.
When a person manages to reach this pinnacle of faith, he does not experience anything bad, and he always feels the need to thank G-d.The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.