Thanksgiving is here and this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10–32:3), gives us the key to feel overflowing gratitude for our blessings despite the heartbreaking losses and darkness of these days. The Parsha describes the beginning of the Jewish nation with the births of the sons of Yaakov (Jacob). We would expect the Jewish people to be named after Yaakov or maybe Yitzchak (Isaac) or Avraham (Abraham). Yet in reality, Judaism is named after one of the sons born in this Torah section, Yehudah (Judah). Jews are “Yehudim” which means “Judahs”. Why is Yehudah the namesake of the Jewish people and what can it teach us about Thanksgiving?
Yehudah (Judah) was the fourth son of Leah and Yaakov. When she gave birth, Leah exclaimed “This time I will thank (Odeh) Hashem” and she named him with the Hebrew root word of thanksgiving (h-d-h). What was so special about this baby that Leah was overwhelmed with thanksgiving even more than with her first three children? Jewish tradition teaches that Leah’s deep gratitude for this son stemmed from the fact that she knew through prophecy that Yaakov was destined to have twelve sons from four wives. She had calculated that each wife’s portion would be three sons, and when her fourth child was born her heart overflowed because she had received more than her perceived fair share. Hence the emphasis in her statement, “This time, I will thank Hashem!”
While it’s a lovely sentiment, what about his naming is so monumental that the Jewish nation is forevermore named after Yehudah? Why is Leah’s statement so praiseworthy that it led the Rabbis of the Talmud to say “From the day Hashem created His world, no one thanked Him until Leah came and thanked Him by saying 'This time I will thank Hashem.’?” What is the secret of Leah’s gratitude and how can it help us celebrate Thanksgiving?
Human nature is to justify our blessings to ourselves. One who earns a bonus feels that they earned it with their hard work. Someone blessed with family or friendships assumes they’re reaping the rewards of years of effort building those relationships. We accept our health as a result of good eating and exercise habits. Without consciously doing so we accept our blessings as our fair share in life. Even when we’re grateful for our blessings, we still operate within the paradigm of accepting good things as the natural order of life. Leah was the first to step out of that paradigm. She was the first to view a gift as more than her fair share. She could have justified to herself why she deserved a fourth son; that would have been easy and natural. Instead she acknowledged to herself that she had received in this child a gift beyond what she deserved. Her model of thanks was powerfully transformative, resulting in a nation of Yehudim.
As parents, we want to channel our inner Leah for our own sake and for our children’s. A child’s natural state is to accept everything they enjoy as their natural right. How many children feel authentic gratitude for their bed, clothes, or breakfast? Even if they say thank you to a parent or teacher for helping them, most think, “it’s their job to help me”. To teach our children to be people of gratitude we need to adopt Leah’s attitude that everything we receive is more than we deserve. We must feel gratitude, not just for the extras in our lives, but for our default reality. We can do this by verbally expressing gratitude for things we usually take for granted.
Here are some suggestions to strengthen your gratitude muscles and develop your children’s. Keep your eyes peeled - once you start finding hidden opportunities for gratitude you’ll keep finding more!
Thank God (aloud!) for everyday events - when you find an available parking spot, when your jacket keeps you warm, when you discover that an item on your shopping list is on sale. Let your kids hear you randomly thank God throughout the day for your five senses, the weather, and the phone call that went well.
Thank your spouse for everyday chores they do - earning money, cooking dinner, putting away laundry, taking out the garbage, greeting you with a smile, taking the family to the park. Let your kids hear you both thank each other frequently and authentically.
Thank people you encounter for doing their regular jobs - the people delivering your mail, directing traffic, or stocking shelves at the grocery store are hidden blessings in your life.
Thank people aloud even when they can’t’ hear you - the driver who lets you into the next lane or the author of the book you just enjoyed may not know you're grateful but you and your children will hear your gratitude verbally expressed, thereby strengthening your gratitude muscles
This Thanksgiving may feel darker than usual for many of us. The world feels threatening and unstable. Yet this is precisely the right Thanksgiving to focus on noticing and appreciating all the bright spots and good people we usually take for granted. For every child held hostage away from their families, let’s remember to be thankful for the many children resting safely at home. For every traumatic loss, let’s be grateful for the many healthy babies born each day. For every security threat we discover, let’s express thanks for the many, many moments that we have been blessed with safety and security. Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful for the blessings we previously took for granted. Each moment of blessing is a gift, far more than we deserve. Utopia is not a prerequisite for celebrating Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving (every day!) is a time to acknowledge the gifts in our life that are usually invisible to us. It’s a time to notice and appreciate the blessings we take for granted.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Maj. Yehuda Natan Cohen, Itay Yehuda, Gilad Ben Yehuda, Yuval Ben Yehuda, Staff SGT Itamar Ben Yehuda, Ron Yehudai, SGT First Class Itay Yehuda Baussi and Yehuda Bachar who were among the many murdered in the massacre against Israel on October 7. May Hashem avenge their blood.
Please share with us! What are you feeling grateful for today?