Parashat Vayetze: Gratitude – acknowledging truth

Judah, of course, did not intend to express gratitude to Tamar for what she had done. He meant to admit the truth.

Ben Ezer - fruit gift boxes (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ben Ezer - fruit gift boxes
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, tells us about Jacob in the house of his uncle/father-in-law, Laban. There, in Aram Naharayim, Jacob marries his wives, and has 11 sons and one daughter (his 12th son, Benjamin, is born after Jacob and his family return to Canaan).
As we find frequently in the Torah, we get an explanation for the names given to people. In this parasha, the ones who give the newborn children their names and provide explanations for each name are the mothers. This is how the Torah describes the birth of Judah, Leah’s fourth son:
“And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, ‘This time, I will thank the Lord!’ Therefore, she named him Judah....” (Genesis 29:35).
This is the first time in the Torah that we read about a person thanking God for something good. The Talmud notes this explicitly:
“And Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai: From the day the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the world, no one thanked the Holy One, Blessed be He, until Leah came and thanked Him, as it is stated: ‘This time I will give thanks to God’” (Brachot 7b).
We’re all used to saying thank you to other people. This is simply polite behavior. But Leah showed gratitude to the source of all existence, to God, and thus acknowledged that her children are not her own private property, but a gift she received from God for which she should be grateful.
Gratitude, when it is not merely lip service, expresses acknowledgment and an obligation toward whoever did something good for us. This acknowledgment is not a trivial matter. It is naturally difficult to acknowledge that everything we have is a gift. It goes against our tendencies of possessiveness and control. Therefore, there is a profound aspect of truth in gratitude. When we express thanks, we admit being beholden to someone else – or to God.
The sages of the Midrash make an interesting comparison between the words of Leah and the behavior of Judah, her son, later in life:
“Because she acknowledged and was grateful when she gave birth to Judah, he admitted the act with Tamar, as it says: ‘Then Judah recognized [them], and he said, “She is right”’” (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayehi).
We read this entire story next week. Tamar, Judah’s former daughter-in-law, was desperate and chose a daring solution. She cunningly seduced Judah and became pregnant. When she about to be punished, in accordance with the laws of that time, she hinted that the father of the baby she was carrying was none other than Judah. The hint reached Judah and he acknowledged: “She is right!”
Judah, of course, did not intend to express gratitude to Tamar for what she had done. He meant to admit the truth. The Midrash directs us to the understanding that the expression of gratitude is the acknowledgment and admission of truth. The truth is that God bequeaths to us from His goodness, and the expression of gratitude is the acknowledgment of this truth. And no less important – the truth is, we are helped by the people around us all the time – by family, colleagues, society.
Expressing gratitude is not only polite. It is acknowledging the truth.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.


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