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VaYeshev: Gratitude and Acknowledgment

12/22/2022 11:28:17 AM


Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that some of the core ideas for this sermon come from a podcast by Rabbi Elie Kaufner or Hadar Institute.

I made a little mistake last week with our younger Religious School students.

Every week, I tell them a story while they eat their snacks. Usually - not always - the story of the Torah portion. This past week, in addition to the usual crackers and cheese sticks, I had a bowl of chocolate coins to distribute. The kids' eyes lit up when they saw all that shiny gold foil.

On a whim, I decided to have fun with it. Instead of just handing out the chocolates, I tossed them one at a time to kids who answered questions correctly. I made sure that every child got at least two coins. Some got three.

"But it's not a fair, because I had my hand up and you didn't call on me." "Please give me another coin." "But I only got two coins, and he got three."

A few of the 3rd graders were so outraged by this injustice, they lost all pleasure in the two coins they held in their hand. 

The sad part was, if I'd just given one coin to everyone, they all would have been delighted. A chocolate coin, before Chanukah has even started! But their gratitude disappeared like that.

The Hebrew word for thanks is Todah. The root is ידה - other conjugations are modeh or modah (give thanks), l'hodot (to give thanks), modim (we give thanks.)

Guess which character in our story has a name that derives from that root. Yehudah. Judah. Why?

You may remember that Jacob had two wives and two concubines. The two wives - Rachel and Leah - were also sisters. You know, if you have to be polygamous, don't marry two sisters!

In the ancient world, the only two arenas that mattered for women were marriage and childbirth. So that's where the sisters competed. Rachel won the marriage game. Their husband loved her more than he loved Leah. But Leah won the motherhood game, because for a long time Rachel couldn't become pregnant. 

Three times, Leah gave birth to sons. With each one, she chose a name that expressed her pathetic state of self-pity. Reuben's name comes from the Hebrew word "ra'ah", to see, because she said: "Now God will see ny "shma", "hear" - "God heard that I am hated, so he gave me another boy." Levi is from "Yilaveh", to join or accompany - "This time my husband will join me, because I have given him three sons."

When the fourth child was born, Leah switched her tone. She didn't mention her husband at all. She simply said: הַפַּ֙עַם֙ אוֹדֶ֣ה אֶת־יְהוָ֔ה - this time, I will thank God, and she named the baby Yehudah. Judah

Could it be that Leah found a moment's respite from the competition with her sister? That she was able, finally, to just take joy in her lovely new child? Perhaps. But the classic commentators don't see it that way. Rashi says that both Leah and Rachel had prophesied that Jacob was destined to father twelve tribes, from four women. 12 divided by 4 is 3. So why was Leah especially grateful when Judah was born? Because he was her 4th son, so now she knew that she had produced more than her fair share of the 12.

In other words, the rabbis saw Leah and Rachel - and really, all of us - as just like our 3rd graders. The gratitude is not for what you have - but for what you have compared to what she has. 

Or maybe, the floor of our gratitude is set by our expectations of what we are entitled to. Comparison to other is a big factor in setting our expectations of entitlement. But it's not the only one. Our own successes can also determine what we believe we are due. 

To explain what I mean, I'll give you another example from my own life. Just a few generations ago, having a bread with white flour every Friday night was a huge luxury. Adding an egg to that bread? Sprinkling a little salt on it? Shabbat is all about expressing gratitude, so people saved all week long to make sure they could have a challah at their Shabbat table.

For Rosh Hashanah, adding raisins was a huge treat.

For me as a child, plain challah was boring. So we had raisin challah every Shabbat. And honey made the Rosh Hashanah challah an extra treat.

My kids don't even like raisins. So we have honey every Shabbat. And on Rosh Hashanah, we punch it up by adding chocolate chips to the challah.

But I had the good fortune to be living in Israel in 1991, when Operation Solomon rescued over 14,000 Jews from Ethiopia. I spent a few afternoons as a volunteer serving meals in one of the hotels that was temporarily housing the new arrivals. They had just escaped violence and famine, and I will never forget the joy they felt in eating slices of fresh orange. 

We, the Jews, are named for Judah. To be a Yehudi - a Jew - is to feel gratitude. Or it should be. That's why I've upped the ante for my children's challah. But that approach doesn't really work. The more we have, the more we want. An attitude of gratitude has to be cultivated on the inside, not by throwing more sugar at it from the outside.

The Hebrew root of today - thanks - has an interesting double meaning. It also means to acknowledge. And often, it's ambiguous which meaning is intended. When we get to the musaf Amidah near the end of our service, look at the translation of the modim section, on page 190. You'll see that it's translated "We thank you". But you decided when we get there - does it mean "We thank you," or is it "We acknowledge you."?

When we wake up in the morning, we are encouraged to recite Modeh Ani.

.מודה אני לפניך, מלך חי, אל חי וקיים, שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה רבה אמונתיך

I am - modeh - before you, oh living God, that you have returned my soul to me. 

What does modeh mean? Are we thanking God for returning our soul each morning? Or are we acknowledging that our soul is a gift from God?

Our Torah portion this week includes a little interlude about Judah in which he embodies this second meaning of his name. To appreciate this story, I need to give a little context. The Torah's stories present a historical reality as it was. The ancient world was grossly misogynist. The Torah's characters operate within that reality. But the Torah subtly undermines misogyny, by presenting women who were incredibly resourceful, despite all the forces stacked against them.

After Joseph was solid into slavery, Judah got married and had three sons. His oldest son, Er, married a woman named Tamar. Er died not long after he married her.

A childless widow was in a bad place in those ancient times, and it was expected that one of her husband's brothers would take her in. Judah told his second son, Onen, to marry Tamar. But then Onen went and died shortly after marrying Tamar. 

So now, Judah worried. Why do my sons keep dying after they marry Tamar? Is she cursed? He only had one son left, Shelah, and Shelah was young. Judah tried stalling for time, by telling Tamar to go back to her father's house until Shelah gets a little older.  She did, and waited patiently, and waited, and waited, and - she was no dummy. She finally realized that Judah had no intention of letting her marry Shelah.

So Tamar took matters into her own hands. She put on a veil to disguise herself. She dressed up like a prostitute, and waited at the crossroads where she knew Judah was bound to appear. She invited him to spend the night with her, and asked him to give her his seal and staff as collateral for future payment.

Judah never realized who she was. 

Three months later, news reached Judah that Tamar was pregnant. Here's the really gross double standard - even though Judag had no intention of letting Tamar be with Shelah, he still considered her to be committed to Shelah. Remember, men in those days routinely had multiple wives, but a  woman belonged to only one man. And that meant that Tamar's pregnancy was adulterous. Kill her! And Judah meant to kill her. But she took out the staff and seal and said, "I am pregnant from the person who owns these." She doesn't accuse him. She just holds it up for him to recognize. And he does.צָֽדְקָ֣ה מִמֶּ֔נִּי. "She is more righteous than I am," he says.

Judah was no saint - not in the Joseph story, as you heard from Noah - and certainly not in the Tamar story. But he had integrity. He had all the power in his relationship with Tamar. If he had denied giving her the seal and staff, no one would have defended her. It might have been tempting - how humiliating to be called out like that. But he acknowledged the truth. He is Judah, Yehudah - the one is able to acknowledge difficult truths.

The ancient rabbis who wrote the midrash see this story of Judah's acknowledgment of his wrong and Tamar's right as core to his characted. And, therefore, as core to who we must be as Jews. 

What is the connection between acknowledgment and gratitude? Why does the same word - modeh, yehudah - mean both things?

We can not feel gratitude when we feel entitled. If you deserve everything you have, why give thanks? Who would you even thank, other than yourself? To feel gratitude, you have to acknowledge that what you have is not yours by right. 

Judah could have so easily felt entitled. Tamar had tricked him! And he was the man. Why should he acknowledge her?

To feel thankful, we need some sense that what we hold is a gift or a blessing. Whether it's a chocolate coin, a white challah, a comfortable home, a loving family, a wonderful community, skills and talents and success in a career. All fo it is a gift. If you wake up every morning and acknowledge that even the breath of life is a gift, then every moment, every breath of the day, is an opportunity for gratitude. 

Tue, May 30 2023 10 Sivan 5783