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Grieve and Give Thanks: Thanksgiving 2020


November 27, 2020

Tonight’s d’var Torah on parshat Vayetze.

It often happens that this Torah, Vayetze, portion falls on the Shabbat after Thanksgiving. It’s a nice pairing, because here we learn that the very origin of the Hebrew word for Jew, Yehudah, is giving thanks. This was the name of the fourth son Leah bore to Jacob. The names she gives her children are the best glimpse we have into her psyche during the difficult early years of her marriage.

The narrative goes like this (Genesis 29: 31-35):

The Eternal saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him Reuben; for she declared, “It means: ‘The Eternal has seen my affliction’ (ki ra-ah Adonai b’onyi); it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me.’” (It literally means, “look, a son!”)

She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This is because the Eternal heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also” (ki shama Adonai ki sanuah ani); so she named him Simeon. (Literally, “hear my affliction!”)

Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” (ata ha-paam yilveh ishi elai) Therefore he was named Levi. (Literally, “be with me!”)

She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This time I will praise the Eternal.” Therefore she named him Judah. Then she stopped bearing.

On most years, I focus on Leah’s journey to gratitude, that she is ultimately able to shift from focusing on her own misery at being unloved to being grateful for the children she has borne. That’s always a good message around Thanksgiving. It’s also not a bad message for this particular Thanksgiving, when drastic changes in our plans have forced us to consider what really matters and how much there still is to be grateful for.

But this year, I saw it from a different perspective. Looking again at Leah’s predicament, expressed through the melancholy names of her first three sons, I discovered another truth, not only about gratitude, but also about grief. Leah cannot be grateful for what she has until she grieves for what she has lost.

Even as we struggled through the twists and turns of this year, so many of us acknowledged how privileged we are to be safe in our homes and able to sustain ourselves through this difficult time. But of course, there has also been loss and heartbreak, frustration and anxiety, and we need to make space for that too.

So I want to use this time tonight both for grief and for gratitude. Before we share what we are grateful for, I want us to take a moment to share what we are mourning and missing this year at this season, the big things and the small things and even the things that feel ridiculous and silly.

(If you missed tonight’s service, feel free to put your answers to this and the question below in the comments).

Now, let’s take a moment to share all things large and small that we are grateful for this year.

We are grieving my father, whose yartzheit will always fall right around Thanksgiving. We miss his gentle humor, his endless patience on long car rides, and the quiet work he did behind the scenes of every holiday to make everything run smoothly. Holidays remind us so much about who he was and how much he loved us. And he would have loved getting to know Amma. In grieving him, we must also give thanks, not only for who he was, and the wisdom he left for us, but also how many more years we had with him than we ever expected. We can mourn him and miss him at the same time we give thanks the peaceful end he had, surrounded by his family, and the incredible community support we received, both of which wouldn’t have been possible right now.

And we are giving thanks for our new family member Amma, while at the same time grieving the time we’ve lost with her: not being able to hold her or make silly faces with her or plant kisses on her tummy or take her overnight so her parents can rest. We will never get that time back. My own paternal grandfather was known to stick an entire baby foot in his mouth, so we are doubly sad that my father can’t do that and that we can’t do it for him. But I know that, during any other phase of my life and career, I might not even have been able to see her this much, because I lived so far away.

In the Talmud (Berachot 7b), we learn that: “Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: 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: “And she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, and she said, ‘This time I will give thanks to God,’ and thus he was called Judah” (Genesis 29:35).

From this we learn that grief and gratitude are not antithetical to one another. Rather, only by traveling through our grief, and really engaging with it, can we truly prepare to give thanks for what we have.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkkowitz

Another text to explore on the topic of Leah’s grief is Shirley Kaufman’s poem “Leah” in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 181.