November 15th-16th, 2002
11 Kislev, 5763
(This is a REVISED version of the essay from 5757)
"Who is a Jew?"
The question has, in recent times, given rise to bitter debate within our
people. While this week's parsha does not touch directly on the legal
aspects of this important question in halakha [Jewish law], it does
present to us the etymology of the word, "Jew," itself. By discovering the
origin of our name, we will gain an insight into our people’s true purpose
in this world. And we may well come closer to answering that pesky
question, "Who is a Jew?" (Or, perhaps, less controversially: WHAT is a
The parsha tells the story of Yaakov's fortunes after he leaves his home
to search out a wife from the family of Avraham in Padan Aram. We learn of
Yaakov's first encounter with Rachel, daughter of Lavan (his maternal
uncle), when he single-handedly lifts a giant rock off of the local well
to water her flocks. (Our Sages tell us that his awesome powers of
spiritual concentration and self-sacrifice helped him achieve this, rather
than weight training.)
Yaakov pledges himself to work seven years to win Rachel’s hand in
marriage, but is ultimately tricked by the unscrupulous Lavan into first
marrying his older daughter, Leah. The Torah chronicles the development of
Yaakov's household, focusing special attention on the noble (and burning)
ambition of Leah and Rachel to bear Yaakov children--that is to say, to be
worthy of becoming the matriarchs of a great nation that would be
dedicated to the sanctification of earthly life.
Leah, the less favored wife, is the first to be blessed with offspring;
with each child, she looks forward to a closer bond with Yaakov--a hope
poignantly expressed in the very names she gives them:
"Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuven,
for she said, 'Because Hashem has seen [ra'ah]
my humiliation, for now my
husband will love me.' And she became pregnant again, and she
gave birth to a son, and she said,
'Because Hashem has heard [shamah] that I am not
favored, He has given me this one also;' and she called
his name, Shimon. And she conceived
again, and bore a son, and declared, 'This time
my husband will become attached [yilahveh]
to me because I have borne him three
sons'; therefore, He [Hashem] called him, Levi." (29, 32-34; Artscroll
Chumash, p. 153)
The naming of the fourth son is somewhat different; her gratitude, this
time, is not associated with any stated reason or cause: "She conceived
again and bore a son, and declared, 'This time, I will gratefully praise [odeh]
Hashem;' therefore, she called his name, Yehuda..."
This is a rather strange verse. Why does the Torah tell us that Leah only
give "praise" to Hashem now? Was she not full of praise and thanks for the
three previous children?
Quoting the Midrash, Rashi explains that all of the matriarchs were
prophetesses, and they knew prophetically that Yaakov would have 12 sons
that would form the nucleus of the future vanguard nation. Divided equally
among four wives--Rachel, Leah, and the two maid-servants, Bilhah and
Zilpah--, that comes out to an expected "portion" of three sons per wife.
Leah realized, then, that the first three sons were her expected portion,
so to speak. It is only with the fourth son that she received more than
her "rightful" share, more than she could ever have expected was coming to
her. Therefore, it was at this time that she specifically gave hoda'ah,
praise and acknowledgment, and therefore, named the baby, Yehuda [from the
The Hebrew word, hoda'ah, then, clearly has the special connotation of
thanks and gratitude for unexpected kindnesses.
Now, to turn back to all of us. We are called Jews, yehudim in Hebrew,
because most of us are descended from the tribe of Yehuda (which along
with Binyamin, formed the southern Kingdom of Judah after the division in
our people that followed the death of Solomon). The word that names us as
a people stems, as we see, from the Hebrew root meaning, "to praise, to
offer grateful acknowledgment for unexpected kindnesses."
What do we learn from this? We are meant to be a people who give praise to
Hashem for the unexpected blessings and kindnesses that we experience…or,
in other words, for every aspect of our lives (and the very fact of our
existence itself)! Could there be any more succinct, or beautiful,
declaration of our true vocation in this world? We are Yehudim, a nation
called on to constantly acknowledge the (undeserved) blessings of life,
and to give joyous thanks to the Source of all life and blessing.
What are the first words an observant Jew says when he/she awakes in the
morning, before even arising from bed? "Modeh Ani Lifanecha"--I gratefully
acknowledge, before You, living and eternal King, that You've restored my
soul to me in kindness..." Immediately upon awakening, we acknowledge the
kindness (not based on anything "owed to us") of having been granted life
and consciousness…though admittedly it might only be after the first
couple of cups of coffee--a Divine gift without equal--that we really can
start to appreciate our renewed existence.
In any case, the point is that the Modeh Ani declaration represents the
very essence of our name Yehudim (those who give praise), and is meant to
set the spiritual tone for the whole day.
What's more, open up a siddur (prayer book), and you'll see just how
thoroughly our Sages understood our calling. They took pains to institute
blessings of praise and thanksgiving for us to say throughout the days of
our lives, as we encounter the various pleasures G-d has provided for us.
We make a blessing before partaking of food, after witnessing the splendor
of mountains, sea, thunder or lightning, and after encountering an earthly
monarch or a great Torah sage. Perhaps you are aware that one of the most
lovely brochos (blessings) of all is said after using the bathroom:
"Blessed are you, Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who created man
with wisdom, Who formed within him cavities and hollow organs..."
We praise G-d for the Divine wonders of excretion! Is that too "lowly" or
"trivial" a function for which to praise our Creator? Ask people who
suffer (G-d forbid) disorders in that department, and I’m quite confident
they’ll endorse the wisdom of praising G-d for that system’s proper
Nothing is too trivial for our hoda’ah. Every system in the body has a
role in helping man serve the Creator. Everything in the world has the
potential to be elevated in the service of holiness, if it helps us grow
in love and awe of our Creator (and our commitment to His Torah), or if it
helps maintain our health as we try to carry out the great life-task of
coming closer to Him. Everything is a gift…and an opportunity for giving
thanks. This is the Jewish vision of life.
Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt’l, a great recently deceased Torah sage,
explained that hoda'ah actually signifies two things: expression of
gratitude for a kindness bestowed (i.e., our normal understanding of
"thanks"), and an elevation of the bestower (based on appreciation for
that kindness). Therefore, he continues, when you have cause to thank
someone, you do not really discharge your moral obligation by simply
muttering a couple of words; you need to work on recognizing and studying
the virtue of that benefactor--in order to be able to elevate him and give
him majesty (hod).
Hodu LaShem ki tov, ki l'olam chasdo, begins Psalm 136: "Give thanks to
Hashem for He is good, for His kindness endures forever." According to Rav
Miller, then, the verse is also telling us to elevate Hashem: to relate
His praises to mankind, and lift up His standing in the eyes of others.
Gratitude to Hashem should lead us to elevate His name in the eyes of
mankind. The function of a Jew, of a yehudi, is not just to give private
thanks to G-d (though that is extremely important); it is also to proclaim
G-d's greatness to the world...through a life of ethical excellence, based
on the study and practice of Torah. (See Praise My Soul, by Rabbi Avigdor
Miller, especially pp. 32-33)
This is an important point: the ultimate expression of our gratitude to
G-d, of our essence as Jews, is to assume (joyously) the mantle of His
service! "I acknowledge all the good You, Hashem, do for me…and to show my
gratitude, I will serve You with all my ability." And that service, in
fact, is the greatest good that G-d gives us, for it enables us to come
close to Him in this world and the next.
The name, "Yehuda," not only contains the root for "praise"; it also holds
within itself the very name of G-d--a yud, then a heh, then a vav, then a
heh: the Tetragrammaton. As Rabbi Elie Munk, zt'l, notes:
"In the name, Yehuda, the Ineffable Name of G-d is glimpsed as it
shines forth on the Jews. Their destiny
is forever linked to the Divine Name and
this destiny will be fulfilled when the Messiah, from the tribe
of Yehuda, causes the Name which is
engraved in their own to be worshipped by all
men and by all nations." (The Call of the Torah: I, pp. 402-3)
How can one become more of a praiser of G-d, more of
a true Yehudi? We must become disciples of Leah. As we said above, she
appreciated her fourth son as a gift that wasn't coming to her, as an
absolutely undeserved present from the Almighty. That perception spurred
her to give praise, to offer hod'ah. This is how we must view every moment
of our lives, and every breath we take: as an undeserved present from G-d.
It is ALL a gift. And though Hashem does not expect us to spend every
single moment praising Him (for, indeed, we have other tasks to accomplish
in this world), it should nonetheless be our ultimate vocation in this
world. Setting aside time for daily prayer and recital of blessings (as
well as spontaneous thanks for the daily joys you experience) are a good
place to start getting in the hoda’ah habit.
Let me add a quick personal note of hoda’ah on another "trivial" gift we
tend to take for granted. Those who know me know that I am the poster-boy
par excelence for allergies and nasal rhinitis! For months at a time,
unfortunately, I can lose my sense of smell. When it is restored to me (by
the grace of G-d, working through hefty doses of steroids), I feel like I
have been truly reborn! This week, my nasal passages dutifully shrank, and
my olfactory bulbs were permitted to once again carry on their intended
work…and baruch Hashem, I can smell! The coffee, the aroma of Shabbos food
cooking, even the sometimes foul swampy smell of Savannah…it is all an
absolute joy to me! And a miracle. Please take it from me: we should all
thank G-d for this wondrous and delight-producing sense of smell every
day. (And for every other one of His constant gifts.) Give hoda’ah to G-d
for clear nasal passages…for His kindness is eternal!
What is a Jew, a yehudi, meant to be? As we have seen, we should look at
our lives as a gift from G-d--absolutely undeserved--and be constantly
moved by that awareness to humbly offer Him praise and thanks...and to
dedicate that life we’ve been given to glorifying His name. May Hashem
help us all to live up to the greatness of Leah, and of our name, Yehudim.
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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