Parashat Vayetze: Giving thanks

One of the essential qualities of being Jewish is to live in a state of thanks. That aspect can help us cultivate a more positive perspective.

 Saying ‘thank you’ forces us to recognize the other – reminding us we need each other. (photo credit: Polina Kuzovkova/ Unsplash)
Saying ‘thank you’ forces us to recognize the other – reminding us we need each other.
(photo credit: Polina Kuzovkova/ Unsplash)

Three weeks ago in this space, we explored parashat Lech Lecha: “Who are we? The answer to that question is multilayered and multifaceted. Our names – how we identify to others and how we are identified by others – are one way that question is answered. Before we were Jews, we were Israelites, and before that, we were known as Hebrews.” The rest of the commentary for that parasha examined the name ivri, “Hebrew.” 

This week we are introduced to the seed of the name Jew. Its source is the Hebrew name Yehuda, or Judah, the fourth son of Leah and Jacob. We discover in this week’s parasha, Vayetze: “She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son, she said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord.’ So she named him Judah” (Gen. 29:35). In this sentence, the Hebrew word for “praise,” odeh, illuminates that the core meaning of the name Yehuda has to do with praise and thanks – think of toda, the Hebrew word for “thanks.” 

From this we gain the insight that one of the essential qualities of being Jewish is to live in a state of thanks. That aspect can help us cultivate a more positive perspective on how to live our lives and engage the world.

One question we need to ask ourselves is why did Leah choose the name Judah for her son?

The 12 sons of Jacob will become the 12 tribes of Israel. In the course of his life, Jacob will have relations with four women – Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah. So simple math tells us that if each woman gave birth to three children, they could each claim equal partnership in the creation of the 12 tribes. However, once Leah gave birth to a fourth son, the possibility of that equality was lost, as she realized she had the opportunity to be the mother of more tribes than the other women, and so she thanked God for that probability by naming him Yehudah. In fact, she would be the mother of six tribes. 

WE PAUSE here and remember that this all occurred in the patriarchal society of its era. For one, Leah also has a daughter, Dinah, but then the descendants of daughters did not count as tribes. In addition, it is mostly accepted that, of the four women, only Leah and Rachel are counted as matriarchs (along with Sarah and Rebekah), while Bilhah and Zilpah, the lowly handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, are not usually given that status, even though in the Hebrew, when they are given to Jacob to produce children, it says “l’isha,” which means “for a wife” (Gen. 30:4, 9).

 Hendrick ter Brugghen - Jacob Reproaching Laban (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Hendrick ter Brugghen - Jacob Reproaching Laban (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

There is an interesting exception to this trope in the Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 12:17): “Six corresponding to the Matriarchs, namely Sarah and Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah.” However, for the most part within Judaism, the two menial handmaidens, even though four tribes came from them (From Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali; from Zilpah: Gad and Asher), are not given their due.

We can be thankful in our age that these dynamics are getting a different look. In Lilith magazine (March 24, 1995), Rabbi Susan Schnur advocates for the inclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah in the Amida, while Josephine Rosman, in the Jewish Women’s Archive (October 27, 2017), challenges us to reclaim these two women by elevating how they are seen. 

THE HEBREW l’hodot, “to thank,” includes an orientation of acknowledgment. It recognizes, among a number of dynamics, that we do not live in a vacuum of existential solitude. It forces us out of a hole we sometimes step into. Saying something as simple as “thank you” produces a shower of recognition, appreciation, worth and affirmation of another person. Saying “thank you” forces us to recognize the other. When we say “thank you,” we are reminded that we need each other.

Giving thanks is a spiral that feeds itself. Recognizing others means they not only are seen with our eyes but are seen in their eyes as well. On the deepest level, we all want and need to be recognized and acknowledged. We hold each other up when we say “thank you.” As the French philosopher Simone Weil reminds us, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

We shall see in a few weeks that Judah’s life is filled with moments when he stands up to others or is unafraid to face the truth. In all these incidents, he is able to draw part of his strength from living a life in a state of thanks: being aware of what he has and not focusing on what he lacks. It is from that place that he is able to act selflessly beyond himself.  

If we understand being thankful as a core value of being Jewish (and, for that matter, being human), it is not surprising to hear the rabbis say we should recite a minimum of 100 brachot, blessings, a day. In the Talmud we find:

“It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Meir would say: A person is obligated to recite 100 blessings every day, as it is stated in the verse: ‘And now, Israel, what [ma] does the Lord your God require of you’ (Deuteronomy 10:12). Rabbi Meir interprets the verse as though it said mea [one hundred] rather than ma” (Menahot 43b).

Blessings are one way we allow ourselves to take in what we have. It is related, as Mark Koffman noted on a Shabbat morning in my shul, that in one of the morning blessings we thank God for our “needs” and not our “wants.” 

“Rabbi Pinhas, Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Yohanan [said] in the name of Rabbi Menahem from Gallia: In the time to come, all sacrifices will be annulled, but the sacrifice of thanksgiving will not be annulled. All prayers will be annulled, but the prayer of gratitude will not be annulled”

Leviticus Rabbah 9:7

We further learn, in the Midrash, about the Messianic Age: “Rabbi Pinhas, Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Yohanan [said] in the name of Rabbi Menahem from Gallia: In the time to come, all sacrifices will be annulled, but the sacrifice of thanksgiving will not be annulled. All prayers will be annulled, but the prayer of gratitude will not be annulled” (Leviticus Rabbah 9:7).

May we all work to bring that age closer by living our lives as Jews, by living our lives like our namesake Judah – the one who is thankful. ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.