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Parashat Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3)

“And Jacob went out from Beer Sheva and went toward Haran.” (Genesis 28:10)

Why are Jews called Jews (as opposed to Reubenites, or Levites, or Benjaminites)? Parashat Vayeitzei provides one answer.

Jacob flees from Canaan to escape his brother’s Esau’s anger and arrives in Haran, where his uncle Lavan lives. Jacob spends the next twenty years working for Lavan. He ends up with two wives (and their two maidservants), eleven sons, one daughter, and lots of sheep. Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) explains the matriarchs were prophets who knew Jacob would bear twelve sons through four different mothers. Leah and Rachel, sisters who share a husband, view fertility as a sign of God’s favor and hope each pregnancy will ensure both their contribution to Jewish history as well as favored-wife status with Jacob. Leah is the first to conceive, and in fact, has three boys in succession (Reuben, Shimon, and Levi). She feels she’s achieved her full share (12/4), and as a result, Jacob will surely love her (Gen. 29:34). And then she has one more boy.

Leah names this fourth son Y’huda, expressing her thanks for receiving more than her expected share. Now, Y’huda is noteworthy for two reasons: in addition to connoting thankfulness, it contains yod, hei, and vav, the letters in God’s name. Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter (1798–1866; founder of the Ger Chassidim) explains this is why we call ourselves y’hudim, Jews, and not gadim, danim, or z’vulunim (all names of Jacob’s other sons): the essence of being Jewish is being constantly grateful for receiving more than we are entitled to.

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