The reasons that lie behind the names given to the sons of Jacob by their mothers, Rachel and Leah are fascinating. What’s striking about Leah’s choices is that they seem tragic and self-serving. She chooses the name Simeon “because the Lord heard that I was unloved,” the name Naftali because she won a “fateful contest with her sister and prevailed,” and the name Levi “so my husband will become attached to me because I have given him three sons.”
These names express Leah’s despondency that she is not loved, even hated, by her husband Jacob. The pattern of tragic self-expression through her children’s names is broken when Judah is born. The origin of the word Jewish, Judah is chosen for reasons that are not self-absorbed at all. Leah names her fourth son Judah 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, 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? On this verse, the Midrash comments that Leah chose the name Judah “because I have assumed more than my share, from now on I should praise God.” Because he was her fourth child, and she had assumed 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.
I don’t consider this interpretation of Leah’s motivation for choosing the name Judah to be a satisfying explanation of the idea of gratitude. Yes, we can all expect certain basic entitlements in life. Americans have come to expect a safe place to live, food to eat, healthcare and education for ourselves and our children. These are among the basic privileges offered to the people of a decent society, and we have come to expect them. Beyond expecting them for ourselves, we are called to fight for the underprivileged among us who do not receive an adequate share of these minimum rights and benefits, if they have them at all. But true gratitude asks us to be thankful for life itself and for each of the blessings we enjoy each day. Nothing we have should be taken for granted or assumed to be owed to us. That is why a Jew is asked to express gratitude as the first utterance upon waking in the morning, why we pause to say thanks for every morsel of food we eat before sitting down to a meal, and why we offer our gratitude for the clothing we wear.
Before we establish what think we are entitled to have and only express thanks for what we are given beyond that, we ought to consider that much of the rest of the world lives in poverty and destitution. When we consider the material blessings that what we have each day of our lives, and the blessings of freedom afforded by our country, we might amend “this time I will thank God” to “I will thank God every time.”
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, I encourage you to offer the following prayer when you gather to share a meal with family and friends.
A Thanksgiving Prayer
(By Rabbi Naomi Levy)
For the laughter of the children,
For my own life breath,
For the abundance of food on this table,
For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,
For the roof over our heads,
The clothes on our backs,
For our health,
And our wealth of blessings,
For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,
For the freedom to pray these words
In any language,
In any faith,
In this great country,
Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.
Thank You, God, for giving us all these. Amen.