The Mother Who Named Her Child, “Thank You, God”

A Devar Torah for Thanksgiving week-end 2012

Parshat YayetzeAnd he went out. . .  frames Jacob’s life for the 20 years between leave-taking and homecoming.  It starts as Jacob journeys away from home as a fearful, impulsive, self-centered adolescent running away from the wrath of his brother, whom he deceived — and ends as Jacob starts the journey back  home to the land of his birth  as a mature family man of faith , intent on protecting his family and prepared to face his brother  and seek reconciliation with his past.  And in between we watch Jacob grow up—through life stages not unfamiliar to us today—travel abroad, work, love, marriage, parenthood, in-law problems, gains and losses, reverses and successes– and ultimately self-actualization.

Yet, what a story it is!—with an  irresistible font of  themes for a d’var torah—dreams, angels, fear, faith, love, weddings, deception, families, the politics of the Middle East, genetics (one I know that Rich would have enthusiastically embraced),. . .  And the beauty of this and every other parshah is that  every time we read it, it resonates with the themes and meanings that touch our own lives at that particular time.  And what pops out of the parshah to me on this Thanksgiving week-end is the origin story of our name as Jews–   Yehudim, literally “people who give thanks to God.”

I am taken back to a Shabbat 40 years ago at Temple Beth Ahm in Randolph, Mass where I sat in the congregation as a young married woman yearning for a child, when the rabbi introduced his d’var torah with a teaser about a mother who named her child “Thank You, God.”  And then he went on to share not a tale of a mother-child bonding or love, but rather one of sibling rivalry between two sisters.

Yes, embedded in the Jacob saga is the story of his wives—Rachel, the younger and beautiful one that he chose and worked 7 years for, and Leah the older, homely one that he got instead– One more incidence of deceit in a long trail of deception in the life of Jacob, as both perpetrator and victim.  He ultimately gets some recompense by getting to marry both of them and becoming a member of his father-in-law’s household and family business ( and signing on for another seven years in order to pay the bride price of his second wife).

But what about the women, both  of whom were treated as objects in the power play  and business deal between father and husband?  Our hearts abound with pathos as we witness the competitive drama set up from birth between the two sisters—older and younger, homely and beautiful, rejected and favored.  The Torah tells us, without equivocation, that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah.  And when it seems that all the cards are stacked in Rachel’s favor, we learn– through one more Biblical paradox– that God saw that Leah was unloved and opened her womb– but Rachel was barren.

We may wonder where are the voices of the sisters—each of whom yearns for something that the other has?   Not through angry confrontation or cat fights or depressive episodes, but rather it is through the act of naming their children that their sibling rivalry and poignant struggle to gain the love of their husband and self-acceptance is played out.

I quote directly from the translation in Genesis, chapter 29 without editing or adding any of my own words or commentary:

 Leah conceived and bore a son and named him Reuven, for she declared, “The Lord has seen my affliction;”  It all means, Now my husband will love me.”  She conceived again and bore a son and declared, “This is because the Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also” so she named him Shimon.  Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, “This time my husband will become attached to me , for I have borne him 3 sons” Therefore he was named Levi.”  She conceived again and bore a son and declared, “This time I will praise the Lord”  Therefore she named him Yehuda. And she left off bearing

As we read on, we see the competition resumes and becomes more heated. Rachel names her adopted son (through Bilhah her surrogate),  Dan since “God has vindicated me.”   And she names Bilhah’s second child Naphtali:  “a fateful contest I waged with my sister; yes, and I have prevailed .”

When Leah  has 2 sons (through Zilpah her surrogate), she names them  Gad—what luck!  And  Asher:  what fortune!  And she names her next 2 biological children–Issachar—“God has given me a reward”; Zebulun:  “God has given me a choice gift; this time my husband will exalt me!”

Finally Rachel has a biological son:  She declares,  “God has taken away my disgrace.”  So she named him Joseph, “May the Lord add another son to me.” And  there the competition ends, for just before Rachel tragically dies in childbirth, she names her child  Ben-Oni (son of my sorrow) but her husband changes his name to Benyamin—son of my right  hand.

As we know, these names lived on into posterity, since each son fathered a family that became an Israelite tribe that took on his name.  When we look for women’s voices in the Torah, we can credit our foremothers with the creative act of naming not only the sons of Jacob, but also the tribes of Israel.   Like the children, each tribe took on its own identity and legacy.   But only one had a lasting legacy that still represents and defines us today:   We  are descended  from the tribe of Judah, the son  who was blessed with the name “Thank you, God.”

Thus we became Jews, or Yehudim—people who thank.   How remarkable that our very name conveys the most positive and humble quality of human expression.  Our name defines us as  people who appreciate, people who are grateful, people  who bless the good in our lives.  In fact, Jews are commanded to say 100 blessings/day.  The same Hebrew root as yehuda/yehudim gives us the word Todah/thank you and fills the pages of our siddur:  Hodu L’Adonai –praise God from the psalms,  Modeh ani lefanecha (I give thanks before you)when we wake up to Modim anachnu lach (We thank you, God) from the Amidah which we recite several times each day.

We can also derive another message from the same story of the two sisters:  Each wanted something the other had; but neither seemed to appreciate the gifts she was given.  From this, we are reminded that as Jews—people who praise and thank—we are encouraged to appreciate the actual blessings in our lives and focus not on our losses, but on our gains—to see the cup half full rather than half empty.

In the past weeks—as survivors of Superstorm Sandy–this has presented a challenge, given our personal losses and the losses to our communities.  Yet there have been the gains–the generosity of spirit, the tzedakah, and community bonding that has brought us together, taught us survival skills, and given us new perspectives.  As Yehudim, we are aware that despite some of the burdens that life presents to us, we can also see the light in our lives.

Full disclosure:  9 months after that rabbi’s sermon so long ago on Shabbat Vayetze, I gave birth to a son.  And we named  him Yehuda, inspired by this parshah.

On this Thanksgiving week-end, let us count our blessings, appreciate how full our cups are, and praise God as Jews who define ourselves as  Yehudim–people who give thanks.