In the course of my rabbinate, I’ve had the privilege of participating with countless families in the celebration of the birth of a child. It’s always a delight to hear the name that parents choose for their child, and interesting to hear the reason for their choice. As many of us have done and in keeping with Ashkenazic tradition, parents often name a child after a loved one who has passed away (Sephardic custom is to name a child in honor of a living relative). But some parents give their child a name that represents an interest they may have in life (one parent named his son Harley because he liked motorcycles) or an experience they may have had at some point (another parent named their child Hudson because she and her husband fell in love and got married in New York).
In this week’s Parasha, we read about the names given to the sons of Jacob by their mothers, Rachel and Leah. What’s striking about their choices is that they seem very self-serving, in an almost tragic sense. Leah chooses the name Simeon “because the Lord heard that I was unloved” and the name Levi “so my husband will become attached to me because I have given him three sons.” Naftali is chosen because his mother won a “fateful contest with her sister and prevailed,” and Joseph is chosen as an affirmation that “God has taken away my disgrace by adding another son to me.”
But the choice of the name Judah, the origin of the word Jewish, is made for reasons that are not self-serving. Leah chooses this name as an expression of gratitude for those things that are above and beyond what she felt she had a right to expect in life. When Leah gives birth to Judah—the namesake of our people—she says “ha-pa’am odeh et Adonai…this time I will thank God” (Genesis 29:35). Why did Leah feel the need to thank God when Judah was born? Because he was her fourth child, and she had reasoned that each of Jacob’s four wives would be entitled to bear three sons who would become one of the ancestors of the twelve tribes. Judah was “extra,” more than she felt she was entitled to have, so she felt compelled to offer thanks to God.
This idea lies at the heart of the historical narrative that gave rise to Thanksgiving. According to historical records, the Pilgrims suffered numerous fatalities during their first year in the New World. Of the 102 people aboard the Mayflower, only half survived. In order for the others to make it, they needed the help of the Wampanoag, who taught them how to hunt, how to fish and what crops to plant in a place that was unfamiliar to them. The Pilgrims, feeling indebted to the Wampanoag, asked that they join them for a meal to show their gratitude for their kindness. The story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving gives us an insight into the meaning of gratitude. Related to the word “gratis,” showing gratitude seems to mean offering appreciation for those things that are free or extra, above and beyond what we feel we are entitled to have. The Pilgrims had no reason to expect that the Wampanoag would help them and the lifesaving assistance they received was above and beyond the basic sustenance for which they might have otherwise recited grace.
There is no exact equivalent Hebrew word for gratitude. Typically, people say “todah” when they wish to say thank you, a word emanating from the Hebrew verb “l’hodot,” meaning to acknowledge or to praise. Another phrase, often used in modern Hebrew to express gratitude, is “hakarat ha-tov, to recognize the good.” That phrase captures the true essence of giving thanks. To offer thanks is to recognize the good around us, and to express appreciation for that which we perceive to be extra or above what we are entitled to have. Each new day should be received as a gift. Judaism encourages us to not only express appreciation for the blessings we receive that go beyond what we think we ought to have in life, but also to express gratitude every moment of life itself, for it is all a gift.
On this Thanksgiving Day, and every day that follows, let us offer thanks for the totality of life.