Oftentimes in the Torah, people’s and place’s names are a play on words describing some event or feeling of the moment – Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, Yisrael, Moshe, and many more. Quite arguably, it might even be the rule, with only a few exceptions. Leah named each of her children in keeping with this theme, describing what each child’s arrival introduced into her life. When she had her fourth child, Yehuda, she described how his birth precipitated the arrival of gratitude into her life:
וַתֹּאמֶר הַפַּעַם אוֹדֶה אֶת־ה עַל־כֵּן קָרְאָה שְׁמוֹ יְהוּדָה – And she said, “Now I have to thank God,” so she named him Yehuda. (30:35)
Curiously, the Gemara identifies this moment as significant for being the first time in history that a human had properly thanked God.
But we know from reading the stories up to this point that that’s not true! Noach thanked God for saving him after the flood, Avraham thanked God for averting Yitzchak’s sacrifice, and Yakov thanked God for saving him from Esau and Lavan, among others.
Moreover, Leah had been showered with blessings! Coming from Lavan’s house, she married Yakov and was already the mother to three of the great Tribes of Israel. She had so much to be thankful for! With the arrival of Yehuda, her fourth son, what newfound conception of gratitude did she discover? What was so fresh and unique about this particular expression of thanks, such that the Gemara says had never been done before?
Rashi addresses this, citing the Midrash that Yakov’s wives might have expected to have three sons each out the twelve he was destined to have, and the arrival of a fourth son confounded this expectation.
R’ Yaakov Hillel highlights that the arrival of a fourth son didn’t just confound the expectation that she would have three sons; it confounded the very notion of expectations!
When Leah acknowledged that what she had already received was not just her fair share, but rather a gift and blessing, it cast her entire life in a new light, and no one before her had ever recognized that before. R’ Avraham Pam notes that up until that moment, people thanked God for discrete, particular things, often with a sacrificial offering on an altar. But Yehuda’s name was totally different perspective – it was a generalized, global “thank you,” an everyday appreciation recalled every time she would say her own son’s name.
Leah was the pioneer of gratitude in the world, and Jews are called after Yehuda, mirroring Leah’s play on words. As R’ Yitzchak Hutner notes that very word has a secondary embedded meaning of concession, and the Hebrew word means both – להודות. As humans, we deeply wish to be free and independent, and at the moment we appreciate another, we concede our frail weakness in having required the assistance of another. The culmination of this expression can be found in the Thanksgiving Offering, where a person would publicly announce their gratitude and dependence on God – the Korban Toda, accompanied by many loaves of Matza, itself reflecting similar motifs.
This new understanding of every gratitude also offers an answer to the famous question of why there are eight days of Chanuka if the miracle was for the seven extra days – the question presupposes taking the first day for granted.
R’ Shai Held highlights that the very first word of the day on a Jew’s lips is מודה אני, expressing thanks for waking up to a new day, subordinating the self to the existence of gratitude. A powerful lesson, from something as trivial as waking up!
When we feel entitled to something, we often don’t fully appreciate it, even once we have it. It takes practice and a conscious effort to change that thinking, but it’s life-changing if we can get there.
We would do well to learn from Leah’s example and live up to the charge of Judaism, proudly carrying Yehuda’s name, which calls us to express our gratitude for all the blessings we are fortunate to have, from the biggest to the smallest.