Parshat Vayetzei recounts 20 eventful years of Jacob’s life. It begins as he leaves Be’er Sheva, obeying both his mother’s directive to flee his brother Esau’s wrath and his father’s wish that he go to the home of his mother’s family to find a wife. It ends when he obeys God’s command to return to the Land of Israel. In the interim, he will fall in love with his cousin Rachel, find himself married to two sisters, Leah and Rachel, become the father of 11 sons and a daughter, and outsmart his wily uncle/father-in-law Lavan to become a rich man.
For many of these years, Jacob’s home was not a happy one. As the Israeli scholar Avivah Zornberg puts it, “All the protagonists most want what they cannot have.” Rachel’s main passion is for children, Leah wants her husband’s love, and Jacob, who loves Rachel desperately, wants her to find fulfillment in him.
Much of this story of frustration and jealousy is told through the names that Leah and Rachel give to Jacob’s sons born to them and their servants. Leah names her first son Reuven, saying, “The Lord has seen my affliction; now my husband will love me.” She names her third son Levi, saying, “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” Rachel names the first son of her servant Bilhah Dan, saying, “God has vindicated me; indeed, He has heeded my plea and given me a son.”
However, perhaps the most interesting name is the one that Leah gives to her fourth son, Yehuda, saying, “This time I will thank [odeh, or praise] the Lord.” Why now? Certainly we would expect that parents would express their gratitude to God for the birth of every healthy child. Why did Leah wait for the birth of her fourth child to thank God?
Rashi cites the midrash that the matriarchs had the gift of prophecy, and so Leah knew that Jacob was destined to have 12 sons. Since he had two wives and two concubines, logic would dictate that each woman would bear three of Jacob’s sons. But now, with the birth of Yehuda, Leah realized that she had been given more than her due, and so she began to thank God.
And, of course, we Jews take our name from Yehuda. Rabbi Yitzhak Meir of Ger, the founding rebbe of the Gerer Hasidim, notes: “Every one of Israel is called Yehudi — Jew — after Yehuda, who was named in praise and gratitude, for every Jew needs to know that whatever he receives in this world is more than his due and so he must thank God.”
During this week of Thanksgiving, it behooves each of us to take a few moments away from eating, watching football, and perusing the Black Friday deals to get serious about gratitude. As part of the Amida prayer that we recite three times every day, we say, “Modim anahnu lach…al nisecha she’b’hol yom imanu,” “We thank You…for Your miracles that are with us every day.” Look around your table, your home, your community, your country and see the miracles great and small. How can you not thank God for all of your blessings?