Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Vayetzei  (Genesis 28:10-32:3)5783-2022

Peanut Butter and Jelly

When Leah gave birth to her fourth son, she named him Yehuda (Judah), meaning “thanks.”

And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time, I will thank G-d. Therefore, she named him Yehuda… (Gen. 29:35).

The Talmud (Brachot 7b) makes a remarkable comment on Leah’s thanks: From the creation of the world until Leah’s time, no one ever thanked G-d.

Was Leah really the first person to thank G-d? Many great people lived before her—are we to understand that neither the righteous Noah nor Abraham nor Sara nor any others who preceding Leah ever thanked G-d?

When a person receives special assistance from the Almighty, it requires an additional expression of thanks. Everyone until Leah’s time had thanked G-d for the health and blessing they had received, but now Leah recognized that she had merited an extra form of Divine assistance, and she therefore gave a greater expression of thanks. She had given birth to more Jewish tribes than any other woman and therefore gave a name embodying the very concept of thanks–Yehuda. It would be a monument demonstrating her gratitude; every time she called Yehuda or thought of him, she would be expressing gratitude.

Who among us would have the chutzpah to say they have not received any additional, special blessing or help at some point in life? Did it ever happen that you got an interview or were called from a waiting list for something for which you had given up hope? Did you or someone you love ever recover from an illness or receive results from a doctor that showed a much better future than you had imagined? We usually give a ceremonious thanks to G-d, but how many of us do as Leah did and make a special expression of thanks to the Almighty? When the doctor calls you in for a procedure and tells you he is concerned and has to send the results to the lab, you wait anxiously for the results; you might even make a deal with G-d that “if it works out, I promise to …” Had the results not been favorable, you would have needed surgery, medication, and a long period of recovery but now you find out that everything is fine. That’s called an underserved blessing from the Almighty (It didn’t come from the doctor or lab, they just reported data; they had no power to affect the outcome.)

A happy person is one who makes this a part of their life. They don’t feel entitled or deserving of all the goodness bestowed on them and when something special happens, they express an outpouring of thanks to G-d. The larger the assistance, the more intense the thanks.

The reason why gratitude makes a person happy is because it turns what we have into more. A cup of coffee becomes a reason to be happy. For a small price I reap the benefit of someone who planted the coffee beans, then harvested and roasted them, and finally shipped them to a place I can conveniently buy them—or better yet, drink a fresh brew from the local gourmet coffee shop. How about my being grateful for having a healthy body that takes pleasure in the taste and temperature of the coffee? This is just a small exercise for the little things in life; imagine how much more we should feel indebted to the Almighty for the ‘over the top’ blessings.

The way to begin developing an attitude of gratitude, which is the common denominator of happy people, is to constantly give yourself an uncomfortable nudge by asking, what am I grateful for right now or at this point in life? You might be confused about who you are, where you are and the history of your relationships, but it’s easy to have clarity about the things in your life that are blessings. Good physical and mental health are enough to get excited over—many people are lacking one or both. If you were successful at being mindful when drinking your coffee, imagine how great dinner can be; a veritable feast, if you have the right attitude. We know a gourmet pastry chef who teaches in a culinary school who once told us, “When someone makes me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I am grateful. You went out and bought the peanut butter and jelly, the bread and the paper plate, made it and put it in front of me—you have made my life that much easier today.” Someone else might complain and say, “I came to their house and all I got was a simple sandwich,” but that is a tragedy because it is a lost opportunity. Gratitude has the power to turn negative thoughts and energy into an invigorating positive experience. 

We might not have reached the exalted level of Leah but she is our guiding beacon. The way to begin heading in the right direction is to begin appreciating the ‘small’ things—even a cup of coffee or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Being mindful of what we possess in mind and body is a gift every each of us has the capacity to give ourselves.