To Be a Jew is to be Thankful (Parasha VaYetze 11-19)

Every Sunday morning, I visit our Sunday school classes. Each class prepares questions they want me to answer. I have had so many great questions. What does the word “Rabbi” mean? Why did G-d create the world? Where was the first synagogue? Who was the first Rabbi? If G-d did not want Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Good and Evil, why did G-d plant it in the garden of Eden in the first place? Great questions! But there is one question I have never been asked. That question is, “Why are we called ‘Jews’? No one has asked me that question. And that is the question I want to answer tonight. 


Why are we called “Jews”?  


The very first Jewish person, Abraham, is not called a “Jew” in the Torah. He is called an “ivri”. The Torah does not explain why Abraham is called an “ivri”. The Rabbis relate this term to the Hebrew word “avar” which means, “to cross”. In this explanation, Abraham was from “the other side of the river” —  the Euphrates River, which he had to cross on his way to the Land of Israel.  Today when we say someone is “from the other side of the tracks”, we usually mean that they are outsiders, ( and poor ones at that.!!)    Perhaps Abraham is referred to as an ‘ivri” because he was a stranger, an outsider in the Land of Canaan. He also worshipped a different G-d, which would add to his being different.    


By the time we get to the Book of Exodus we are referred to by a different name — B’nai Yisrael. This translates into “Children of Israel” or “Israelites”. “Israel” is, of course, the name given to Jacob after his struggle with the angel which we read about in next week’s Torah reading. But the term, “Bnai Yisrael” or “Children of Israel ” comes to describe an entire people, not just the actual children of Jacob. Throughout the rest of the Torah we are called “Bnai Yisrael” — Israelites. We see this term used in our prayer this evening, “Ve-Shamru Bnai Yisrael et Ha-Shabbat” — the People of Israel shall observe the Sabbath. That prayer comes directly from the Book of Exodus.  


The first person to be described as a “Jew” in Scriptures is Mordechai in the Book of Esther. All of Mordechai and Esther’s people are also called “yehudim” or “Jews”. Scholars believe the Book of Esther was one of the last books in the Bible to be written. It was probably written between 400 and 300 BCE. If that is correct, we are talking about over a thousand years from the time of Abraham for the Bible to describe someone as “a Jew”.  


Let’s review. We have three names. The first, the name that describes Abraham, is “ivri”, the “one who crossed over the river”. “Hebrew” in English. The second, “Bnai Yisrael”, “The Children of Israel” is named after Jacob and refers not to his actual children, but to the entire people who were enslaved in Egypt. The third name is “Jew” or “Yehudi”. What does “Yehudi” mean, and where did that name come from?  


In this week’s parasha we read that Jacob married two sisters, Leah and Rachel. Jacob fell in love with Rachel, the younger sister, but was tricked into marrying Leah, the older sister first.   Having two wives, sisters no less, is a complicated matter. The Torah tells us that Jacob loved Rachel, but that Leah was unloved. When G-d saw that Leah was unloved, G-d decided to do something about it. Leah began to have children, but Rachel was unable to have children. Leah named her first child Reuven, which means, “Now my husband will love me.” Sad, isn’t it? But Jacob did not love her anymore than he had before Reuven was born. Leah had a second son. She called him Shimon, saying, “Maybe my husband will love me now.” But Jacob did not love her anymore after two sons. She kept on trying. She had a third son, named Levi, saying, “Perhaps my husband will become attached to me now that I have given birth to three children.” But Jacob did not love her anymore after three children than after two children. Leah had a fourth son, and named him …… “Yehudah”. And she said after this son, “This time I will thank G-d”. 


Do you see what happened? At first she wanted to have children so she could win the love of her husband. She kept focusing on what she did not have, what she could never have, because you cannot make another person love you. She must have felt very bitter after the birth of each of her sons, because it did not change the way Jacob felt about her. But when her fourth son was born, she turned her attention to what she did have. She had four children, and, finally, she could thank G-d for these gifts which she never appreciated before. So she names her son “Yehudah” which means “Thank You” from which the word “Yehudim”, or “Jews” comes from.  


I imagine that from that point on, Leah’s life changed.  Maybe, she was no longer so preoccupied with her place in Jacob’s heart.  Perhaps she was no longer jealous of her sister Rachel. I hope that naming her son Yehudah was a sign that she could now appreciate all of the blessings in her life and take pleasure and find happiness in what she had.  


We are named after Leah’s fourth son, Yehudah. We are “Yehudim” — Jews. We are the people who give thanks. We are a people who pay attention to the  blessings that we have received, just as Leah did when she finally acknowledged the blessings in her life.  We are the people who praise G-d, who thank G-d when we get up in the morning — Modeh Ani Lefanekha — 

“I thank you, G-d, everlasting Ruler, who allows me to wake up to a new day!” 

Therefore we are obligated to thank You, and to praise You, and to bless You. Happy are we, how good are our lives, how pleasant our fates, how glorious the gifts we have been given.” 


How many of us wake up with that attitude? Or do we wake up and say, “I don’t feel like getting out of bed today, it’s cold and windy outside, Or, I don’t feel like going to school, I think I’ll take the day off, I didn’t sleep well last night……. 


Of course, we sometimes feel like this. We are only human. But when we do feel like this in our lives, we should try our best to overcome these feelings, and to greet each day as a gift to be thankful for. This is the true meaning of being a “Yehudi” — of being a Jew, a member of a people who give thanks. 

Shabbat Shalom 

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