12 Kislev 5781

November 27, 2020

We find in this week’s portion. Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), Jacob working in the home of his uncle Laban, working hard to win the hand of his beloved Rachel. As we all know, he ends up with two wives, Rachel and her sister Leah. Understanding that Jacob prefers Rachel, God seeks to compensate Leah by “opening her womb,” allowing her to bear four sons. Regarding the fourth son, we read: “She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, ‘This time I will thank (odeh) Adonai.’ Therefore she named him Yehudah (Judah).” (29:35) Yehudah, from the same root as todah, thanks.

It is not surprising that we, as a people, Yehudim, have come to be identified by the name of this child, Yehudah. For one of the hallmarks of the Jewish nation has been our ongoing commitment to praise God and to thank God for demonstrating a continued interest in our national destiny.

Still, when Leah chose, in naming her son, to thank God for granting her the gift of children, she demonstrated a keen awareness that God’s role is not limited to intervention in our collective affairs. Rather, it can be felt by each of us in our own lives. Leah was not simply thanking God on behalf of her people — she was uttering a personal prayer of thanksgiving.

This was clear yesterday as we celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday. As a great leader once stated: A Psalm of thanksgiving: Raise a shout for the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before His presence with singing. Acknowledge that the Lord is God; He made us and we are His. His people, the flock He tends. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise; be thankful to Him, and bless His name. For the Lord is good; his loving kindness is everlasting; and his faithfulness endures to all generations. Psalm 100 (George Washington’s Proclamation of a Day of National Thanksgiving, October 3, 1789)

The Hebrew term for “gratitude” is “hakarat hatov,” which means, literally, “recognizing the good.” Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours, paying attention to what you do have instead of focusing on what you don’t. Apropos in this season of Thanksgiving, we are literally ungrateful if we do not give thanks and do not focus our hearts on the good we have in our lives. Let us be like Leah and the namesake we are today as Jews and find ways to recognize the good in our lives as we share our words of gratitude.