Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Vayeitzei 5781
Last night was a sad night for a lot of people. Even if you made a full meal and had your family around you, even if you zoomed in with family and friends all around the country or world, few of us were able to gather with the joy and feeling of fullness, with the full mishpacha we would usually enjoy. Some of us were just with one other person, or two or three. Some were alone last night. Some of us, some of you, have been mostly alone for nine months now. Some of us have been cooped up with one or two or three other people. Some are grieving a person we love or we are grieving a way of life. It’s a long, strange, sad time we’re in.
And along comes Thanksgiving. Already a complicated holiday, whether because of its origins or its dynamics, and here we are trying to celebrate it in a pandemic. It brings up all of the loneliness and longing and emptiness that we’ve been carrying all this time.
On a practical level, as an eater, Thanksgiving is the ultimate test of knowing when you’re full. It is a meal designed to push you past that internal limit. Who decided you needed rolls in addition to turkey, potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, and some kind of green. I mean, who would look at that and think, yeah, we also need bread? Or what’s up with the appetizers? Why would there be anything before a meal of this size? The night is about enticing you toward another scoop of mashed potatoes or stuffing or another slice of pie. I think I can remember two Thankgivings ever wherein I noticed just when I had enough, and stopped.
If we look at the Jewish food blessings, we see wisdom about satiety. Many people know that in Judaism, while we do say a brief blessing before putting food in our mouths, the essential blessing for food comes at the moment when we feel full and we know we’ve had enough. Birkat Hamazon is designed to bring our awareness to satiety.
In this week’s parasha, Leah becomes sated, becomes aware that she has enough, and that is something extraordinary given her story, something worth learning from.
In Genesis 29:35, the text says of Leah: v’ta’amod miledet. She stopped giving birth. More precisely it means, as Chizkuni points out, that she paused in giving birth, as should would again bear a child in Dinah. But for now, ta’amod miledet, she stood still on giving birth. No more babies for a while.
Why? Abraham Ibn Ezra has the following explanation. At this point Leah has four sons. And she says to God, “lo echmod lihiyot li od.” “I don’t covet, desire, long to have more for myself. I have been given enough.” “ka’omer odeh et hashem, she natan li kol zeh, v’yaspik li.” So I say thanks to God, who has given me all of this. It is enough for me.”
This doesn’t sound so surprising, right? Leah has four children, of course she feels like it’s enough and she feels grateful.
But if we look more closely at Leah’s story we see how remarkable this moment is.
Remember that Leah wasn’t supposed to marry Jacob, or at least Jacob didn’t want to marry Leah. He doesn’t love her. And she knows that. When we first meet Leah, the Torah tells us that her eyes are soft, “v’einei Leah rakot” usually translated as “her eyes were weak” maybe she had blindness, but literally it means her eyes were soft. And the midrash tells us that her eyes were soft because she cried so much. She cried so much because she saw that it had been foretold that she would marry Esau and Rachel would marry Jacob, and she had a longing for Jacob. She was in love with him and she longed day and night for his love for her. But Jacob did not love her. He didn’t even really see her. He loved Rachel. He loved Rachel so much that the first seven years he worked for her hand in marriage, the text says the seven years “seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her.” And then it says, “v’ye’ehav gam et Rachel mi Leah.” He came to Rachel and he loved Rachel from Leah/ compared to Leah/ as opposed to Leah.” The next verse tells us “vayirah Adonai ki s’nu’ah Leah” Adonai saw that Leah was — the translation says unloved — the text says hated.” Not wanted.
So here is Leah, consumed by longing for Jacob’s love. Married to him. Hoping that she can somehow get him to see her, to care for her, to want her. She gives birth to her first child Reuven and says, “God has seen my affliction. Now my husband will love me.” But it doesn’t happen. She is still unloved. At the birth of her second child Shimon, she said, “This is because God heard that I was unloved (same word, s’nu’ah — hated) and has given me this one also.” And then she still has hope and longing for Jacob’ love when she names her third child Levi, “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.”
Look at the pathos of this character who is craving being seen, being known, being loved. Who despite three children feels empty, needing so much her husband’s attention, affection, attachment, even just accompaniment.
It does not at this moment seem that Leah will become a person who feels sated, who feels that she has enough.
But then something shifts, and Leah decides that despite her fate as an unloved or even hated wife, despite her loneliness and her longing and all of the ways that her life is not what she wished it would be, that she actually has enough. That can she can feel full.
And so with the birth of her fourth child, she no longer is defined by her longing, by her lack, by her emptiness. It is still there, of course, It still hurts. She still has all of those emotions. But she names her child Thanksgiving. “Vatomar, ha’pa’am odeh et Adonai. Al ken kara shemo Yehuda.” And she said, “This time, I give thanks to God.” I am grateful, I acknowledge what I have. “Therefore she called his name Thanksgiving, Yehuda, Judah”
Two things to note about this. First, the Talmud (in Brakhot 7b) says that Leah was the first person in the Torah to be grateful. What a strange thing to say. We know it’s not true. Abraham fell on his face in gratitude. Sarah was so grateful she called her son “laughter”. In Psalm 139 we see Adam express gratitude in the Garden of Eden. But Leah is credited as the first to feel gratitude because she was able to feel fullness within or despite emptiness.
I said there were two things to note about Leah naming Judah. The second is that we are named for Judah. Yehudim, Jews, comes from Yehuda, Judea, which comes from Judah. We are the people of thanks. The people who live in praise and gratitude, no matter what the conditions of our lives or our world.
The word in Hebrew for gratitude, hoda’ah, odeh, yudah, it means more precisely “acknowledgement”, meaning you can start just naming and knowing that something is good and worthy of blessing. Just offering words of praise. This as a practice, even when the days are bleak, even in the midst of loss, even when we’re lonely and longing, this as a practice generates a feeling of fullness, of enough.
And what we know is that sometimes the kind of gratitude that Leah expresses in this parasha is the sweetest kind. Think about a time when you were raw with mourning, maybe that’s now, maybe that was long ago. And remember a moment within that time when someone was kind, or the sun suddenly came out, or you were aware of a simple pleasure like a cup of tea. And right in the midst of your aching heart, with eyes bleary from so much weeping, with an unfathomable emptiness, there was suddenly this ray of goodness right there in the midst of all of the terrible. And you could see it, and for a brief moment you felt full. You felt you had, in one small way, enough. This is hoda’ah. This is Leah’s lesson. This is what she named us.
“Who is a Jew?” Rabbi Shai Held asks, “one who discovers the possibility of gratitude even amidst heartbreak….’ Rabbi Held continues, “Disappointment need not preclude gratitude nor need gratitude crowd out the very real possibility of disappointment. Judaism does not ask us to choose one feeling over the other but rather makes space — indeed seeks to teach us to make space — for the sheer complexity and contradictoriness of human experience. Who better than Leah to teach us that a broken heart can also have moments of profound fullness.”
What a message for Thanksgiving Shabbat in month nine of the global pandemic. That we can be disappointed, heartbroken even, longing, lonely, and also grateful. We can not have all we need, be in the midst of incompleteness, and still feel full sometimes.
May we, on this pandemic Shabbat Thanksgiving, find causes for gratitude despite it all. May we find glimpses of satisfaction along with dissatisfaction, satiety along with lack, wholeness in the midst of a broken world.
Even when there is emptiness around us or within us, may we sometimes feel full.