2017-11-22 / Religion Column

May we as Jews strive to be like our name

Temple Beth Sholom

Parashat Vayetzei
Gen. 28:10-32:3

One of my favorite things to do as a rabbi is to consult with new or expectant parents about names for their child. The names we give our children connect them to those we loved who are no longer with us, the heroes of our tradition, and the attributes that we hope will guide them throughout their lives. In the book of Samuel, it says k’shemo kein hu, “a person is like his/her name.” This suggests that one’s name also has a deeper spiritual meaning which reflect the essence of their soul.

Names are especially on our mind this week as we read parashat Vayetzei, where 12 of the 13 children of Jacob and his wives are born (Benjamin will be born next week in parashat Vayishlah). As each child is born and named, the Torah takes the time to report the reasons behind the names. Remember that Jacob has married Leah and Rachel, and the sisters seem to have a difficult relationship. Rachel is more loved than Leah, but she is not able to have children. While Rachel struggles with infertility, a very real issue for many today, Leah tries to gain Jacob’s favor through the children that she seems to have so easily. Leah’s first four children are born and named in four verses. The names of her first three children, Reuven, Shimon, and Levi, all reflect her frustrating rivalry with her sister.

For example, Leah explains that Reuven means both “the Lord has seen my affliction” and “Now my husband will love me.” The meaning of Shimon and Levi’s names builds on this heartbreaking sense of disappointment that Leah seems to feel.

But then, with the birth of her fourth son, Judah, her mood seems to shift. Leah explains the name Judah (Yehudah) by saying, “This time I will thank the Lord.” In Hebrew, the word for “thank” is odeh—which shares the same root as Yehudah. One commentary notes that Leah has grown to realize that she should not focus on what she lacks, but rather feel a genuine sense of appreciation for what she has. We all seek to achieve this sense of perspective. Our culture encourages us to always want more, to upgrade to the latest model of iPhone or to remodel our home so we have the perfect kitchen. Today we are often confused by the difference between what we “need” and what we “want.” Being able to distinguish between what we really need, as opposed to what we merely want, is important to be able to feel grateful for what we have.

The Jewish people are called Yehudim, Jews, after Yehudah, Judah. The name of our people is rooted in this sense of gratitude and thankfulness that Leah ultimately feels after the birth of her fourth son. This also expresses a value and an aspiration for us. We seek to constantly be aware of and to express gratitude for the blessings we have. It is a wonderful coincidence that this year we read parashat Vayetzei on the Shabbat of Thanksgiving Weekend. For a people whose name is rooted in thankfulness, Thanksgiving is the most Jewish of secular holidays. It is also a reminder that giving thanks, expressing gratitude to those we love, and being appreciative of the blessings we have, is part of who we are as Jews. May we strive to be people who embody the meaning of our name. 

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