Vayetze: Leah, Judah, and the meaning of thanksgiving
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Vayetze: Leah, Judah, and the meaning of thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a time when we all come together to be thankful for our many blessings. With family, friends, feast, and football, it is a day of time-honored tradition which warms the hearts and the homes of virtually all who participate.

It has been nearly 150 years since Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of a Day of Thanksgiving in 1863. Needless to say, the notion of giving thanks is one which was featured prominently in the Jewish tradition long before then. Three times a day, we recite in the Amidah prayer, a blessing of thanksgiving to God: “Modim anachnu lach… al nisecha sheb’chol yom imanu, v’al nifle’otecha v’tovotecha sheb’chol et, erev vavoker v’tzahoraim.” “We thank you, Lord… for your miracles which are with us each and every day, and for your wonders and your goodness which are ever-present, in the evening, the morning and the afternoon…”

In light of our daily prayers we may be moved to ask, “Isn’t every day Thanksgiving? Why limit thanksgiving to just one day?”

It is quite fortuitous that Thanksgiving often comes out on the week of the Torah portion of Vayetze. Upon further reflection, this week’s portion provides profound insight on the notion of giving thanks, and offers an opportunity to relate to the holiday with new-found appreciation. The Talmud (Berachot 7b) comments that in the history of the world, no one offered thanks to God until Leah did so, when she named her son Judah, saying, “this time I will thank (odeh) God, and she called him Judah (Genesis 29:35).”

While the heroism and faith of Leah is unquestioned, thanking God despite her second class status in the house of Jacob, this comment by our sages is nonetheless quite jarring. Are we to believe that none of the greats of the previous generations ever offered thanks to God? Not Adam or Noah? Not Abraham or Sarah, or Isaac or Rebecca? Not even Jacob himself? Certainly they owed a debt of gratitude for all God had done for them. So what was unique about the gratitude of Leah?

Perhaps Leah brought the concept of thanksgiving to a whole new level. While those before her were thankful, Leah actually concretized that thanks. She showed her gratitude by calling her son by the name Judah, a name whose very meaning is gratitude. In naming her son, she offered a lasting testament to her indebtedness to God, taking the sentiment and doing something about it, making it real.

In truth, every day is Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, it is of inestimable value to take a day and designate it as a day called Thanksgiving. We are offered the opportunity to concretize our gratitude, to take our feelings of indebtedness that we all have and bring them to the fore. Just as Leah eternalized her gratitude by making it her son’s name, so too we take ours, which we express verbally thrice daily, and devote a day to reflection and expression of our thanks.

Through the lessons of Leah, may the feelings and emotions of gratitude and Thanksgiving permeate within all of us. Shabbat Shalom.

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