Every week, parshaoftheweek.com brings you a rich selection of material on parshat hashavua, the weekly portion traditionally read in synagogues all over the world. Using both classic and contemporary material, we take a look at these portions in a fresh way, relating them to both ancient Jewish concerns as well as cutting-edge modern issues and topics. We also bring you material on the Jewish holidays, as well as insights into life cycle rituals and events...
In this week's portion, Va'yetze, Yaakov, fleeing from his brother Esav, leaves home and goes to Charan, the ancestral home of Abraham. There he marries Rachel, whom he loves, but only after first being tricked into marrying her older sister Leah, whom he does not. Rachel, we are told, is barren, whereas God takes pity on Leah, and blesses with children. Her first three sons are given names which indicate this: God saw - "ra'ah" -her suffering and caused her husband to love her by giving her a son - Reuven; He heard - "shama" - that she was unloved and therefore gave her another child, Shimon; and, with the birth of this third child, Levi, Yaakov will now come to be with and love her - "yi'laveh".
The fourth son she names Yehuda, saying: "This time I will give thanks (odeh) to God". The obvious question is why she thanked God only now, after the birth of her fourth son. The earlier sons were named for the kindness God had shown her by blessing her with children, but only now, with the fourth birth, does she actually thank Him. Why?
Rashi answers in this way: as the Torah tells us, there were four wives involved here - Rachel and Leah, and their two servant girls, Bilha and Zilpah, who also bore Yaakov sons. The four wives prophetically assumed that each one would bear three children, adding up to the grand total of twelve tribes. When Leah bore a fourth son, she thanked God for privileging her above the other wives. The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, Provence, 1160-1235) seems to agree, and adds that thanks were appropriate as Leah, with the birth of a fourth son, received more than she had ever asked for, and the Ibn Ezra (Spain, 12th century) adds that she now, therefore, will stop asking, as she has more than enough, so the thank is like a 'that's enough, my plate (or my nursery, in this case) is full'.
An interesting understanding of the dynamics of thanksgiving emerges from all of this: Leah, until she had Yehuda, was glad that God was answering her prayers, and, with the names she gave her first three sons, she recognized and celebrated the good He was bestowing upon her. However, she pointedly was not moved at that stage to actually thank Him. It would seem that Leah fully expected a just God to give her the three children she 'deserved', her fair share of the twelve tribes. She fully expected a just God to have pity on an unloved wife, and give her both her fair share of offspring as well as her fair share of love. Only the birth of the 'extra' son, Yehuda, which was more than she expected, moved her to thank Him.
This could be an interesting way for us to look at issues of justice, equality, and fairness. As Leah felt she deserved her first three children, and the love of her husband, we all deserve our fair share of things. We all deserve to be treated equally, and with love. We do not owe anyone, not even God, a thank you for being dealt with reasonably; God, or man, owes us that - we are supposed to be treated with kindness, mercy, and fairness. When this happens, we recognize it, even celebrate it, but it's no big deal, we don't need to go out of our way to thank God, or anyone else, for it. And, if and when we are in a position to give these things to others - to treat someone fairly, to supply them with what they need (and actually deserve anyway) - we should not expect to be thanked for doing so, they are, after all, owed it, and we should be giving it to them.
This basic expectation of a fair and decent world, in which we all assume we will get what we deserve, for which no thanks are in order, may not be realistic, but it is certainly an assumption which would be a healthy and productive one for all of us to make, about ourselves and others; namely, that we all deserve our fair share. We all deserve to be treated equally. And we all deserve to be loved.
Rabbi Shimon Felix