People of Gratitude - Parshat Vayeitzei
by admin / LNCLN
by Rav Sarah Mulhern
I recently had the joy of officiating at the naming of a baby. You won’t be surprised to hear that naming babies is one of my favorite parts of being a rabbi. And for me the best part is actually after the whole ritual, when the parents have an opportunity to explain about the name they have chosen for their child. As they share about the history of the name, the family members the child is being named for, the meanings that they understand from the name, you can see so much about the values and hopes they have for their child, and so much of the love that has already grown between them and their little one. It’s truly the best.
Having that experience fresh in my mind made reading this week’s parsha all the more painful, because in it we read about children who are named not as an expression of their parents’ aspirations and joy but as an expression of their parent’s hurt and anger. Just to reorient us all in the story, Yaakov has been tricked by his father in law Lavan into marrying not only his beloved Rachel, but also her sister Leah. And this creates exactly the situation you would imagine - Yaakov has one wife that he’s absolutely head over heels in love with, and one wife who is Leah. And her pain and anger at being trapped in a marriage to someone who did not choose her and who does not love her comes through searingly in the explanations she gives for each of her first three children’s names:
Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him ‘Reuven’ - look, a son! - for she declared, “It means God has seen my suffering” and it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me.’”
Later she conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This is because God heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also”; so she named him Shimon - God hears.
Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, “Perhaps this time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” Therefore he was named Levi. (Gen 29:32-34)
I honestly can’t even read these heartbreaking mini-name explanation speeches without tearing up, so full of pain and anger and trauma and building despair. Even in this moment where she has brought a new child into the world, she, very relatably, can’t see anything beyond her suffering, can’t see the child as anything except a potential means to fixing her broken marriage.
But then, when her fourth son is born, something shifts.
Leah conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This time I will thank God.” Therefore she named him Yehuda. (Gen 29:35)
The commentators are very interested in the question of what exactly has shifted, what is different this time around. One common rabbinic explanation is beautifully explained in a midrash through analogy to tithing.
Why did she not say “I will thank Gd” after the births of Reuven, Shimon, Levi, but only after the birth of Yehuda? This may be compared to a priest who goes to a farmer’s barn to collect the tithe and the priestly portion. When the owner of the barn hands the priest the priestly portion, the priest does not thank them, and when they give over the tithe, the priest still does say ‘thank you’. But if, after the farmer gives the priest what is due, they then add a measure of unconsecrated food, the priest does thank the farmer greatly and recites a prayer on their behalf. A bystander might ask the priest: “Why is it that when the farmer gave you the tithe and the priestly portion, you did not thank them, but when they added only a single small measure of unconsecrated food, you thanked them?” The priest replied: “The tithe and the priestly offering belong to me, and I merely accepted that which belonged to me, but the measure of unconsecrated food the farmer added belonged to them, and so I thanked them for it.” Similarly Leah was a prophetess, and she said: “Twelve tribes are to descend from Jacob, and since he has four wives, each of us is entitled to bear three sons. I have already given birth to three sons, my rightful share, but now a fourth son has been granted to me; surely it is fitting that this time I thank Gd.
There is a great insight in this midrash: we feel and react very differently, and are able to access a very different kind of gratitude, for good things that come to us in our lives if we believe we are entitled to them vs when we believe they come to us as an undeserved grace.
But with all due respect to the Midrashic tradition, I want to offer another interpretation about what has shifted. It is not that something is different about the baby, but rather that something is different about Leah herself. Leah, through her tears, has learned something, has changed and grown over her years of marriage and mothering. It is not that she is no longer angry that she is unloved. It is not that she is no longer sad that she was not chosen. But she has learned for that pain not to be totalizing, to be able to feel what she feels about that and to imagine the possibility that there can also be good things in her life. She can be heartbroken about her marriage and feel joy on the birth of her son. She can see that what was done to her was evil and also see that her new child is good, and not as a means to fixing her marriage, but good in and of himself. She can thank God for what is beautiful in her life even though she recognizes that her life is not perfect.
In this reading, the moment when she names Yehuda, not incidentally the child after which the Jewish people will come to be named, is clearly a huge breakthrough moment in Leah’s life. But fascinatingly, the rabbis of the Talmud suggest that it is also a huge eureka moment in human history. They tell us that “From the day the Holy One, Blessed be God, created the world, no one thanked the Holy One, Blessed be God, until Leah came and thanked God.” This strikes me as a crazy thing for the Rabbis to say! Noach never said thank you to God after the flood?! Avraham never said thank you to God when Isaac was born? It never occurred to anyone ever in human history before to thank and praise God?! But perhaps this is explained by the radical shift of Leah’s insight: everyone else was waiting for their life to be perfect before they said ‘thank you’. Leah was the first one to realize that you can fully recognize the things in your life that hurt, and also be fully grateful for the things in your life that are a gift, and that you can direct that gratitude to the Divine.
In the contemporary midrashic collection Dirshuni, author Tamar Biala crafts a midrash which imagines Leah as fully conscious that she is not only having a personal breakthrough, but teaching a lesson for the ages. In this moment, the midrash says, “Leah sought to teach the people who would be born from her”, the people who would be named after her son Yehuda. “And what did she wish to teach them? How to express gratitude on the good.”
The anonymous voice of the midrash then asks - but wait, why did we need to be taught that? Isn’t being grateful when things are good the easy part? Isn’t it intuitive, something even babies instinctively do? Do you mean to say she taught us how to express gratitude when things are bad? Isn’t that the hard spiritual work?
The midrash then offers what I think is an incredibly important answer. No, it replies, she was teaching us how to properly express gratitude for the good. Because there are two different kinds of saying thank you when something good happens. One is a kind of immediate, shallow thank you. This is the easy kind - when the good thing is right in front of our face, when we are experiencing something pleasurable, right then we can muster thanks. But it’s not durable - as soon as something bad or painful happens, our gratitude vanishes. That bad thing becomes our whole perspective, all we feel is sadness or anger. But there is another way - Leah teaches us to say thank you when something is good in a way that is so profound that we internalize the gratitude, that it becomes a part of who we are. And then, when something painful inevitably happens, it is still painful. We don’t pretend it isn't bad. But we can see that bad thing alongside the good in our lives. It isn’t our total world view. We can confront the hard thing as someone who has not just been grateful occasionally but who is a person of gratitude, for whom gratitude is the framework on which we view life. It’s not about pretending the bad or painful thing is good, but merely that our gratitude has been so internalized that we can place the bad thing next to our gratitude for past and future good things. It’s about recognizing, as Leah, did, the opportunity to access gratitude amidst the inevitable imperfection of our human existence.
This is my bracha for each of us this shabbat and in the weeks to come: I pray that each of us will experience something good, something that brings us joy, something that feels like a gift. And when it comes, I hope we will have the awareness and presence to notice it. And, like Leah, I pray that we will be able to use the opportunity of that good thing not just to say thank you but to access and internalize a deep, perspective shifting kind of gratitude. And I hope that the experience of that gratitude will strengthen us for the inevitable losses of human existence, not so that we will attempt to deny that they hurt, but so that they will not feel all-encompassing, so that we can see them in the context of God’s complex world, full of both beauty and pain. I pray that we will each follow in Leah’s footsteps to become people of gratitude, who can live up to our name as Yehudim, and know that an imperfect life is the perfect moment to say thank you.