The Wondrous in the Everyday

And Hashem saw that Leyah was hated, and He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. And Leyah conceived, and bore a son, and she called his name Reuven; for she said: Because Hashem has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me. And she conceived again, and bore a son; and said: Because Hashem has heard that I am hated, He has therefore given me this son also. And she called his name Shimon. And she conceived again, and bore a son; and said: Now this time will my husband be joined unto me, because I have borne him three sons. Therefore was his name called Leyve. And she conceived again, and bore a son; and she said: This time will I praise Hashem. Therefore she called his name Yehudah; and she left off bearing. (Sefer Beresheit 29:31-35)

1. Yaakov and Leyah’s first four sons
In the closing passages of Parshat Toldot, Yaakov left his parents’ home and traveled to Charan. Parshat VeYetze describes Yaakov’s journey and his experiences in the home of Lavan. The parasha ends with Yaakov’s departure from Charan on his journey to return to the Land of Cana’an.

Much of the parasha deals with Yaakov’s experiences in Charan with his uncle Lavan. Yaakov agrees to work for Lavan for seven years in exchange for his daughter Rachel’s hand in marriage. Upon completing his term of service, rather than blessing Yaakov’s marriage to Rachel, Lavan substitutes her older sister Leyah. When Yaakov recognizes that he has been cheated by his father-in-law and confronts him, Lavan is unrepentant. Yaakov agrees to a second seven year term of service for the hand of Rachel. With this agreement in place, Yaakov marries Rachel and then fulfilled his term of service to Lavan.

The Torah explains that Yaakov preferred Rachel to Leyah. In response to Leyah’s plight, Hashem grants her fertility and denies children to Rachel. Leyah gives her first son the name Reuven. This name communicates her acknowledgment of Hashem’s kindness. She explains that Hashem recognized her suffering, granted her a son, and now, Yaakov will love her. Leyah conceives a second son and names him Shimon. This name communicates her acknowledgement that Hashem has recognized that she is the less cherished wife and in response has granted her a second son. She names her third son Leyve. This name expresses Leyah’s hope that now she and Yaakov will become true companions. She names her fourth son Yehudah. This name is a simple expression of gratitude to Hashem.

And Yaakov vowed a vow, saying: If G-d will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall Hashem be my G-d, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be G-d’s house; and of all that You shall give me I will surely give the tenth unto You.’ (Sefer Beresheit 28:20-22)

2. Leyah’s contribution to Torah
Our Sages make a strange comment regarding Leyah and the names she gave her sons. Their comments specifically note the name Yehudah and the message of thanksgiving in this name. They explain that from the time of creation, no one had properly given thanksgiving to Hashem until Leyah. She was the first to properly offer thanks to Hashem.[1]

This comment of the Sages is difficult to understand. When Noach emerged from his ark, he offered sacrifices of thanksgiving to Hashem. Avraham erected altars as thanksgiving to Hashem. In the opening passages of this parasha, Yaakov experiences a prophetic vision. In this vision, Hashem tells Yaakov that He will be with him and that He will return him safely to his father’s home. In response, Yaakov erects a monument to Hashem, he vows to tithe, and he proclaims that he will make this place a house for the worship of Hashem. All of these commitments are his expression of thanksgiving. In short, there are many episodes in the Torah in which thanksgiving is offered preceding Leyah’s expression of thanksgiving.

K’tav Sofer suggests an interesting response to this problem. His response begins by considering an apparent contradiction between the Talmud and Midrash.

3. Can thanksgiving become too common?
The Talmud explains that we are obligated to recite Hallel on special occasions. These occasions include festivals. However, it is inappropriate to recite Hallel daily. Commenting on this teaching, Rashi explains that Hallel is an expression of thanksgiving to Hashem. It is reserved for special occasions. By reciting Hallel daily, a person minimizes its significance. He renders its recital into a common and pedestrian experience.[2]

The apparent implication of the Talmud is that thanksgiving should be offered sincerely. Therefore, it should be expressed sparingly. If it is offered too frequently or too readily, it becomes cheapened and it loses its significance.

However, the Midrash seems to contradict this position. According to the Midrash, a person should express thanksgiving to Hashem, with every breadth. Each breath should be perceived as a gift from Hashem.[3]

K’tav Sofer notes the apparent contradiction between the Talmud and the Midrash. The Talmud is concerned with the negative impact of regular and repetitive expression of Hallel. Such behavior deprives Hallel of its significance. In contrast, the Midrash endorses regular — even ongoing — thanksgiving.

4. Two varieties of thanksgiving
K’tav Sofer suggests that there are two varieties of thanksgiving. One type is in response to experiencing a miraculous event. It recognizes that the event is an aberration and deviation from the norm and a revelation of Hashem’s intervention into the affairs of humanity. Hallel is an example of this variety of thanksgiving. It focuses upon our redemption from the bondage and oppression of Egypt. This variety of praises should be given sparingly.

The second variety of thanksgiving is for the everyday elements of our lives that we attribute to nature. These are events or elements of our life that we can easily ignore and not regard as expressions of Hashem’s providence and will. Because they are natural phenomena, we tend to not look beyond their material causes and even take them for granted. Yet, every rising sun, shining star, and even every breath is an expression of His divine will. That pattern of causality that we call “nature” is sustained by His will and ongoing providence. In order to reinforce this message, constant reminders are required. Thanksgiving for the commonplace must be regular and frequent — lest we forget that the common is also an expression of His divine will.

5. Appreciating Leyah’s innovation
Based upon this distinction, K’tav Sofer explains the Talmud’s comments regarding Leyah. It is true that others preceded Leyah in offering thanksgiving. However, in each of these instances recorded in the Torah, the thanksgiving was offered in response to an event or an assurance from Hashem that was out of the ordinary. Noach offered sacrifices in response to his emergence from the ark. He and his family had been sustained during the Deluge that destroyed all of humanity. Avraham offered thanksgiving in response to the assurances from Hashem that he and his descendants would experience a unique providential relationship with Hashem. Yaakov’s thanksgiving responded to a similar assurance.

Leyah offered thanksgiving in response to having a son. She had not experienced the uncommon or miraculous. Many others in her position attribute their experience to nature and regard it as a common event unworthy of remark. Leyah recognized that even the apparently common is an expression of His will. The names that she gave her sons communicated an idea that the patriarchs had not expressed in the altars and monuments that they erected. She used her sons’ names to express the imperative that we thank Hashem for that which we might otherwise regard unworthy of our thanks — the everyday wonders in life.[4][5]

6. Seeing Hashem in the everyday wonders
K’tav Sofer’s comments are particularly moving when we experience tragedy and sorrow. At such times it is common for us to question. We ask, “Where is G-d? Does He respond to our prayers and our call for salvation?” We know that Hashem is omniscient. He knows all and nothing takes place outside of His will. We are not in a position to understand and critique His plan.

However, our question to Hashem is not only an intellectual inquiry. It is also an expression of abandonment. We are really asking Hashem, “Where are You? Why have You abandoned me?” K’tav Sofer’s comments respond to our sense of loneliness. Hashem is with us at every moment. His presence need not be evidenced through the miraculous. Every breath, every heartbeat is a gift. The natural is indistinguishable from the miraculous. Both are expressions of His will.

1.Mesechet Berachot 7b.
2.Mesechet Shabbat 118b.
3. Midrash Rabbah, Parshat Beresheit 14:9.
4. Rav Shmuel Binyomin Sofer, K’tav Sofer Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 29:35.
5.One of the objections that might be raised against K’tav Sofer’s assertion that Leyah was the first to thank Hashem for the everyday is that Kayin and Hevel offered sacrifices as thanksgiving for the bounty of their flocks and harvest. However, it must be acknowledged that although we would regard this as thanksgiving for the commonplace and natural, early humanity had not yet developed such a concept. Unlike modern man who sees so many of the world’s wonders as mundane, our first ancestors were likely overwhelmed by the wonder of the regularity of nature and the earth’s gift of its bounty. For them, these everyday phenomena were still wonders.