By Vanessa Stark Waye
This week we celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.S., acknowledging and giving thanks for all the bounties we have received this year! Have you been counting your blessings and feeling grateful for 2020 or, more likely, have you been thrown off course and feeling down or deeply disappointed by the events of this past year?
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayeitze (Genesis 28:10-32:3), reminds us we can experience both disappointment and gratitude simultaneously. What an appropriate lesson for us today. As we close in on the ninth month of the COVID-19 pandemic–an event most of us never expected nor even thought possible in our lifetimes–we are supposed to pause, gather with the loved ones in our immediate “pod,” and celebrate a day of Thanksgiving.
One of our matriarchs, Leah, found herself in a similar predicament.
In this parashah, Jacob flees his home and journeys far north to the city of Haran. There he meets his uncle Laban who has two daughters. Jacob falls deeply in love with the youngest, Rachel. But he is deceived by his uncle and given the older daughter, Leah, as his bride instead. Jacob is outraged, of course, but he eventually gets what he wants and is able to marry Rachel as well. So, where does this leave Leah?
Poor Leah finds herself in a loveless marriage with a husband who only has eyes for her younger sister. No matter what Leah does, including giving birth to four sons, she cannot earn Jacob’s affections let alone his attention. With the births of each of her first three sons, Leah remains hopeful that the tides will change and, in the names she chooses for her sons, she expresses her hope and desire that Jacob will love her, notice her, or at least feel an attachment toward her. Although desperate for Jacob’s love, unfortunately for Leah, there is no “happily ever after” in sight. We can only imagine the depths of her frustration, hurt, and disappointment.
With the birth of her fourth son, however, Leah experiences a noticeable shift. Although we all know such rejection and hurt never fully disappear, in naming this child, Leah makes no reference to her desire for Jacob’s affection or her disappointment in never having felt his love. “This time, I will thank the Lord,” (Genesis 29:35) she says and names this child Judah which shares the same root in Hebrew as the word “todah,” meaning “thank you.” With Judah’s birth, she decides to embrace the blessings in her life while also living with her sorrow.
One Talmudic scholar suggests that Leah is the first person to show pure gratitude to God. How so? He explains that it is easy to be grateful when life is going your way. But Leah is the first to show gratitude to God in the face of adversity. The Torah teaches that being grateful and appreciative during a period of exceptional disappointment shows we have agency and ability to recognize the good that exists in all situations, even those that seem overwhelmingly unfavorable.
Today, we can all certainly relate to Leah’s feeling of despair and disappointment. As fall prepares to turn to winter, the days are shorter, the temperatures are dropping, outdoor explorations and family visits are less likely, and our holiday celebrations must be pruned; all the while the number of COVID-19 cases is rising—schools are shutting their doors, hospitals, yet again, are overcrowded, and regions of our country and our world, once again, are going into lockdown.
And yet, November also has brought significant glimmers of light and hope. One can sense that the rifts in our country may start to calm or at least receive the attention they deserve; the economy could begin on a road to recovery; and not one but two COVID-19 vaccines—each more than 95% effective—have been announced, which is more than even Dr. Fauci expected! I, for one, am beginning to feel a bit lighter; I can breathe a little deeper and smile more readily than I could only a few short weeks ago. I am indeed able to begin to count our blessings.
Like Jacob, we have been on a long journey; we left our “homes”—in this case, our workplaces, our friends, colleagues, and family members. And like Leah, we’ve suffered great disappointment along the way. And yet, like both of them, we are coming to the other side—to the light. We will work to address the divisions within our country, our communities, and our families. We will get beyond the challenge of forced social isolation, and we will, once again, embrace the in-person energy of others. Our disrupted routines will be adapted—students will return to school, and with time, we will attend sporting events, or meet for drinks, a picnic, or even a Broadway show!
Let’s take the opportunity of Thanksgiving that Leah found with the birth of Judah and make space to be thankful—thankful for the first responders, essential workers, and all the others who never stopped doing or giving on behalf of others; thankful for the technology that allows us to still feel connected and has opened new ways for us to interact socially, professionally, educationally, and even athletically; and thankful for our families, friends, and colleagues who support us during this challenging period. As Leah taught us, true gratitude is to find the good and be thankful especially when times are tough. The Jewish people were named for Leah’s son, Judah, as the word “Jew” derives directly from his name. What a testament to God’s admiration for Leah and for her journey. We would do well to follow Leah’s lead.
Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat shalom.