A Jewish Approach to Life: Oy Vey and Thanksgiving

A waiter checks on his table where a Jewish family is dining and asks, “Is anything ok?”

At the conclusion of his presentation entitled, "Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say about the Jews," Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wraps up with a few jokes about the way we, as Jews, have used humor to manage the existential challenges of life (go to minute 43:00-44:26 of the presentation). He quips in summary, “Because of Jewish history we are pessimists, because of Judaism we are optimists, so we are optimists with worried looks on our faces.”

The stereotype of Jewish negativity is a strong one and, as mentioned above, there is good reason for it based on Jewish history and current events. However, as Rabbi Telushkin points out, the Jewish impulse does not let negativity define us. Yes, we must see reality for what it is, however, we must also figure out, through humor, re-framing, or faith, how to manage it with optimism and hope. This is true for us as a people or as individuals.

We see a paradigmatic example of this on the personal level in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze. Since Ya’akov explicitly loved Rachel but was tricked into marrying Leah, Leah felt deprived, which finds expression when she gives birth to her first three children:

Reuven: "...for she said, 'The Lord saw my plight [ra'ah...b'onyi]; yes, now my husband will love me.'" (29:32)

Shimon: "...and [Leah] said, 'The Lord heard [shama] that I am despised and has given me this one too.'" (29:33)

Levi: "...and [Leah] said, 'Now, this time, my husband will be attached [yelaveh] to me, for I have borne to him three sons."

Leah is struggling with God, her husband and her sense of self-worth as she seeks through her sons to fill the void of intimacy with and love from her husband. This negative example of projecting the issues with which she is struggling with her husband onto her sons is a painful one for all involved. Yet, with her fourth son, she transforms her negativity into pure gratitude:  

"...and [Leah] said, 'This time I give thanks [odeh] to the Lord.' She therefore named him Judah [Yehudah]." (29:35)

What happened that she made such a change? We don’t see any shift in the relationship between her and her husband in the text. She is still losing in this painful competition with her sister for the love of her husband even though she is the one succeeding at having children. This time, however, she manages to transform her empty bitterness into passionate praise.

Our great rabbis, sensitive to this shift in attitude and being, recorded in the Talmud in the name of Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (Berakhot 7b), “From the day the Holy One, Blessed be God, created the world, no one thanked the Holy One, Blessed be God, until Leah came and thanked God, as it is stated: ‘This time I give thanks....’”

While such a claim may sound exaggerated, it is a recognition of the transformative power involved in Leah’s inner shift of how she related to her place world that was able to transform bitterness into gratitude. Where else is there such an example in the Torah before this moment gratitude expressed with full intentionality and awareness?

As Rabbi Gail Leibovitz PhD and professor of Talmud at American Jewish University notes in her commentary on this portion: “One might thus observe - as both the commentary in Etz Hayim does and as Tammi J. Schneider notes in her comments to this parashah in The Torah: A Women's Commentary - that it is not coincidental that it is particularly this name that comes to form the basis of the name of our people at large.”

As Jews today, we are hyper aware of the dangers that threaten us and our world. The traumatic lessons of our history are marked deep into our being. Do we have the spiritual strength that has also been transmitted through the generations to find the opportunities to express gratitude even with full awareness of reality? The ability to do so is the very basis of our name as a Jewish people. Maintaining hope in the face of despair, faith in the ditches of oblivion, and the desire to live even in exile may be the very characteristic that has kept our people alive through the millennia.

This is the Jewish response to loss that guides the individual in the face of the death of a family member to recite kaddish, the affirmation of God’s sanctity and meaning in life in the midst of one’s community.

As Dr. David Hoffman, Vice Chancellor and Chief Advancement Officer at the Jewish Theological Seminary writes at the end of his commentary on this parashah:

“Fifty years ago, Heschel presciently warned: the human being will not perish for want of information but for want of appreciation. With our Torah reading this Shabbat and in these weeks before Thanksgiving, let us learn from Leah and renew a daily practice of gratitude.”