Leah knew she wasn’t Jacob’s first choice. In Parashat Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), it was Leah’s beautiful sister, Rachel, whom Jacob truly loved, but her father would make sure that this was how it came to be. She would marry Jacob first, then Jacob would work for seven more years until the true apple of his eye, Rachel, could become his wife.
The Torah teaches that Rachel could not bear children, but Leah could. And year after year, out they came! First Reuben, then Simeon, and then Levi. She named each as a reflection of her life experience. Reuben’s name meant, “God has seen my affliction”; it also could mean, the Torah text teaches, “Now my husband will love me.” Simeon’s name meant, “This is because Adonai heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also,” and Levi’s name, according to Torah, meant, “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” But even with three sons to carry forward Jacob’s line, things didn’t change much at home. It was always, “Rachel, Rachel, Rachel….”
But her boys brought Leah joy; as she watched them begin to walk and play together, she found happiness and she was grateful. So, when a fourth boy was born, having found contentment in her lot and her bunch of boys, she named him Judah. The name Judah, or Yehuda, means, “I am grateful.” It was in naming her son for the gratitude she felt that emerged the tribe of Judah, from which the Jewish people would become known as “Yehudim”—and we get the word “Judaism.”
Ensconced in the building blocks of language, the Jewish people would become a people rooted in gratitude, giving thanks and pursuing gratitude all the time. Truly, this was an attitude of gratitude right from the start.
In the hustle and bustle of our lives today, finding moments to discover and offer gratitude can be difficult. We may find ourselves in a life moment that is soul-crushing or heart-wrenching, or we feel stuck or unsure of ourselves. However, even in our lowest points, the Jewish teachings of Mussar, the ethical spiritual tradition of becoming your best self through Jewish values, do not let us feel sorry for ourselves. Scholar Alan Morinis shares in his Mussar Institute curriculum: “One Mussar master began a talk with a thump on the table and the words, ‘It is enough that a human being is alive!’ And he ended his talk right there.” Even in difficult life moments, how might it change our perspective to internalize, “I’m alive and for this I give thanks.”
What if our gratitude extended even to inanimate objects? In his book, “Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar,” Alan Morinis shares this story: Whenever Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the Kotzker Rebbe, replaced a pair of worn-out shoes, he would neatly wrap up the old ones in newspaper before placing them in the trash, and he would declare, “How can I simply toss away such a fine pair of shoes that have served me so well these past years?” We can imagine the delicate way he held his beloved shoes and gently offered them thanks.
Another story shared by Morinis about Mussar teacher Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (1872-1970) says: “Rabbi Lopian was talking to a student after prayers; at the same time he was folding up his tallis [prayer shawl]. The tallis was large and he had to rest it on a bench to fold it. After he had finished the folding, Reb Elyah noticed that the bench was dusty, and so he headed out to fetch a towel to wipe it off. The student to whom he was speaking realized what Reb Elyah was doing and ran to get the towel for him. Reb Elyah held up his hand. ‘No! No! I must clean it myself, for I must show my gratitude to the bench upon which I folded my tallis.’”
The gift Mussar offers us is the imperative to double down in gratitude, whether we are in a period of abundant privilege or excessive drought, a time of mourning or a time of joy. Further, Jewish tradition (Talmud Menachot 43b) encourages us to offer at least 100 blessings a day—it requires of us to acknowledge with gratitude through blessing every single moment, from waking until sleep, thanking kernels of food we consume and even reciting a blessing upon going to the bathroom.
The Hebrew term for “gratitude” is “hakarat hatov,” which means, literally, “recognizing the good.” Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours, paying attention to what you do have instead of focusing on what you don’t. Apropos in this season of Thanksgiving, we are literally ungrateful if we do not give thanks and do not focus our hearts on the good we have in our lives.
If you’re dreading gathering around a Thanksgiving table this year, or even if you look forward to it, imagine following in the footsteps of our matriarch, Leah, who transformed her life and ultimately the Jewish people by recognizing goodness and giving thanks for the blessing of life.
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