Michelangelo's Leah
Michelangelo's Leah

Why Leah’s ability to give thanks should be our model for today

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Vayetzei

Genesis 28:10-32:3 


We learn how to give thanks from our mother Leah.

On the birth of her fourth child, Leah exclaimed, “This time I will give thanks [odeh] to God. Therefore, she named him Yehuda” (Genesis 29:35). Citing this verse, the Talmud makes the following claim: “From the day the Holy One Blessed be created the world, no one thanked the Holy One, Blessed be, until Leah came and thanked God” (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 7b).

Leah’s expression of thanksgiving has become a trademark identity of the Jewish people, known as Yehudim, from Yehudah (Judah). R. Yitzchok Hutner explores the root of this trademarked hodaah, giving thanks, in his writings on Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday of hodaah, thanksgiving:

“… The name Yehudim with which the entire nation is called is in essence that they are constantly modim (thankful) to God for God’s kindness … For the mother who merited to create this name recognized that she got more than her share … the matter of the Todah due to the birth of Yehudah includes within it also the concession that this was not coming to her by right …”

According to Rav Hutner, the concept of hodaah combines both thankfulness and the recognition and concession of God’s ongoing kindness, as well as reliance on the kindness of others:

“In Hebrew, there are two concepts built into one word: an expression of the good (danken in Yiddish) and agreement with the opinion of the other side (nachgeben, ‘to concede’ in Yiddish). For both of these concepts, one joint expression exists in Hebrew: hodaah … The explanation for this is that within the soul of a person is deeply buried an aspiration to rely only on themselves, and not to need any help at all. And the moment a person expresses hakarat tovato (recognition of the good) of their fellow, and gives them todah (thanks), at that very moment there is also an admission that this time they were not able on their own and they needed to make use of their fellow’s kindness. And how much more so the matter between a person and the Omnipresent … In the wild nature of every person is hidden the presumption that ‘kochi v’otzem yadi asah li at hachayil hazeh’ (my strength and the might of my hands made me all of this). And the moment the person sacrifices their Todah (thanksgiving offering) to the Omnipresent this is an admission that they have no agency at all.”

Leah is most often remembered as the slighted wife who didn’t receive her due from Jacob as compared with her beloved sister, Rachel.

Yet Leah’s enduring legacy is not a litany of “would’ve, should’ve, could’ve.”

Rather, Leah’s enduring legacy is her thankfulness, for which the Jewish people become later known.

Leah’s recognition and concession that everything stems from the kindness of God at the birth of the fourth child — more children than she had anticipated based on the Sages — freed Leah from keeping “score” to establish her rights in this marriage triangle and thereby freed her to be filled with thanks.

How do we manifest thanksgiving during these times in which so much is beyond our control? What are the kindnesses, small and large, human and Divine, that sustain us and for which we are grateful? How might giving in and recognizing that we cannot do it all on our own, that we rely on the hands of so many in our daily lives and the hand of the Creator, shift our perspective toward thankfulness for all that we do receive?

Particularly in these times, when so much comes to us by a click of a finger, the concession of indebtedness and gratitude to those who get us through each day is essential.

Giving thanks is relevant every day, of course, not only on days in the Jewish or secular calendar in which we are encouraged to be particularly grateful.

The liturgy presents a helpful model of daily thanksgiving, following Leah’s precedent in the Bible. It is the first thing recited upon waking. Modah Ani (“I am Thankful”) and hodaah is the concluding piece of the amidah prayer. The daily liturgy reminds us of the importance of acknowledging that each and every day is something for which to be grateful, and is not to be taken for granted.

Conceding this gratitude to others, and ourselves, particularly amidst difficult times, can be challenging. Following Leah’s precedent, what are the ways in which we can be better about conceding our indebtedness to others and in giving thanks every day?

Maharat Victoria Sutton
Maharat Victoria Sutton

Maharat Victoria Sutton is the director of education and community engagement at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.