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Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3) A Gift not to be Dismissed

Abraham and Sara as well as Isaac and Rebecca had difficulty having children but their grandson/son Jacob was the opposite. In a short period of time, he fathers many children (who ultimately become the Tribes of Israel). When Jacob’s wife Leah had her fourth child, she named him Yehuda (Judah), which means “thanks.” That means that both literally and symbolically she chose a name that expressed her thanks to G-d and His participation in her difficult life.
Again she (Leah)conceived again and bore a son and declared, “This time I will thank the Almighty.”Therefore, she named him Yehuda; [then] she stopped giving birth. (29:35)
The Talmud says: “From the time of creation there was no person who praised G-d until Leah came and thanked Him upon the birth of Yehuda.” This statement is enigmatic; was Leah really the first person to give thanks to G-d? Noah emerged from the Ark and brought offerings of thanks; Abraham “lifted up his hands to Almighty” following his victory in the war between the 4 Kings and the 5 Kings, was that not thanks? How about Sara, Isaac, Rebecca, is it conceivable that they never thanked G-d? There must have been others who had expressed appreciation to the Master of the Universe, but Leah’s thanks seem to have a quality heretofore unknown until now. What was unique about her expression of gratitude?
Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, known as the Ben Ish Chai, was one Sephardic Jewry’s greatest authorities on Jewish law and kabbala in the 19th century, explained with a parable. A king hired two expert craftsmen to build an additional wing to his palace. Shortly after they arrived, one of the them became ill-unable to work. The royal doctor spent weeks administering medical care but by the time the craftsman had recovered the new wing had already been completed. The king paid both craftsmen full pay for the job and sent them on their way. When they arrived home, both men wrote beautiful thank you notes to the king. The king sent a bonus check to the to the worker who had performed his duties but did not send anything to the one who was out of commission throughout project. The king’s servants were puzzled by his behavior and asked, “Your Majesty, was the craftsmen’s letter lacking so much that you refused to send him a bonus check like you did to his counterpart?”
“To the contrary”, replied the King, “his letter was just as beautiful, perhaps even more so than his friend’s. However, his thank you was obligatory. Think for a moment, I paid him the full amount even though he hardly worked a day on the project. However, his friend received payment for services rendered and yet he still felt an urge to thank me for what was by rightfully due to him This kind of thanks deserves special notice!”
The Ben Ish Chai explained that G-d sends assistance to people in two ways, the natural and the miraculous. One who witnesses a miracle is quick to praise G-d for His kindness. Many Jews in Israel gave prayers of thanks to G-d immediately after the Six Day War due to the miracle of a relatively small army being able to defeat the well-funded, large armies of the neighboring Arab nations. A sudden burst of spirituality is normal when witnessing a miracle either on a national or individual level. But a far greater expression of gratitude is when a person takes notice of the kindness and protection provided by G-d on a daily basis in an un-dramatic, “natural” fashion.
Four women have children in this Parsha but Leah was the first to conceive; she even gave birth to four children before Rachel had her first. Leah knew she was destined to participate in the nation building process. However, being as four women would give birth to the 12 tribes, she naturally assumed that each one would have 3 children. When Yehuda, her fourth, was born, she felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude; she had gotten more than what was her due and this is what motivated her unique thanks.
Some people feel that G-d owes them all the goodness in their lives. “I go to shul, do some mitzvos, help others, and try to be a good person; G-d acknowledges my deeds in the form of bounty He bestows.” The mindset is, I earned it; it’s coming to me.” Leah felt that what she already had was not deserved, all the more so having the gift of an unearned additional child. When a person thanks G-d, (s)he should feel that ALL (s)he has is a completely undeserved gift. This attitude can open the heart to an expression of gratitude and bring about happiness. When one doesn’t do so, (s)he feels entitled to good health, finances, mental wellness, and all the other desired attributes, that person feels angry when (s)he doesn’t get what is (perceived as being) deserved.
Leah is our model for how to approach the blessings in our lives. We should feel they are undeserved and, yet, frequent. We must never forget that the name for Jews in Hebrew is Yehudim (plural of Yehuda, ‘thanks’). Our name as a people reminds us of a Yehuda, whose name represents a mother’s desire to have a living testimonial of her feelings of gratitude toward the Almighty.
Rabbi Abraham Pam (1913-2001) explained that when one achieves a happy milestone in life- marriage, a newborn child or a financial achievement-one’s heart overflows with joy and gratitude. Yet, as time passes one gets used to the good fortune and the joy begins to dissipate. As happiness is burdened with responsibility to provide for a spouse, raise the child, or to handle the new level of financial responsibility – exhaustion and stress replace euphoria. Leah understood this psychological phenomenon. As the happy mother of a fourth child, she wanted to permanently ingrain her initial simcha (joy; happiness) so that it would not diminish with time. Therefore, she called her son a name whose root means thanks. This was unique even among the illustrious and righteous Matriarchs and Patriarchs who proceeded her. By doing so, she would have constant reminder that would re-ignite feelings of appreciation every time she called her son’s name or thought of him. No one in history had ever expressed this type of thanks until her.
How many of life’s gift’s do you possess? We take health, family, friends and other gifts for granted but sometimes forget that many people don’t have them all and some people don’t have any of them. A short prayer of thanks, “G-d, thank You for all this underserved goodness” is a good way to start the day. Remember, there are many good, intelligent, hardworking people who are ill, have family members with mental health issues or are experiencing some hardship or (physical or emotional) pain. Learn from Leah’s example to make a monument of the undeserved goodness in your life, which consequently will cause you to know and feel fortunate you truly are.
Good Shabbos
(Sources: Brachos 7b; Rav Pam on Chumah, Rabbi Raymond Beyda, Thanks A Lot)