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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת ויצא, תשפ״א

Parshat Vayeitzei, 5781

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, November 28th, 2020

Shabbat Thanksgiving 5781

We are Jewish, spiritual descendants of Judah (Yehudah), the fourth son of Leah and Jacob. Leah, who struggles to win her husband’s affections throughout Parashat Vayeitzei, is overjoyed by the birth of her fourth son:

ותאמר הפעם אודה את ה׳ על כן קראה שמו יהודה ותעמוד מלדת

She says: This time, I will thank Adonai. As such, she called his name Yehudah, and she ceased from bearing children.

This name, Yehudah, derives from the Hebrew root that means “to be grateful” or “to give thanks.” We heard it earlier tonight in טוב להודות לה׳ - it is good to give thanks to God. We’ll hear it time and again tomorrow, as I will point out throughout our service. The commentator Seforno adds that יהודה also includes the letters of God’s name – yud, heh, vav, and heh. We are a people for whom expressing godliness must mean embracing gratitude.

What better time to embrace that gratitude than Shabbat? On Shabbat, our prayer service contains almost no requests, complaints, regrets, or worries. We treat Shabbat as, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a palace in time. It’s a sort of taste of a messianic future - a test case for what perfection might feel like in time to come. We take twenty-five hours to complete the simple task of sitting with what we have, with whom we’re with, and practicing appreciation through rest, good food, and words of praise. While the United States has one official day of Thanksgiving per year, a day to forget conflict and worry, the Jewish people have one official day of Thanksgiving per week.

But this day of Thanksgiving, this day of Shabbat cannot be the end of gratitude, but rather an inspiration towards daily gratitude. Every moment we spend at the Shabbat table with family, is an opportunity to learn how to bring positivity into the week to come. Every time we say thanks in our prayer service is a time to practice saying thanks to the people we encounter each and every day. Each Shabbat is a day to remind ourselves to spend time with the people for whom we’re grateful, to spend time doing the things we love in the week to come.

For the Spanish medieval commentator Ibn Ezra, Leah’s gratitude meant a complete satisfaction with her current state of life, a ceasing from trying to achieve and obtain. After Leah gives birth to Judah, she stops having children. However, Leah does not stop having children forever; just a chapter later, she gives birth to Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah. So too, embracing gratitude on Shabbat and throughout the week must not mean simply settling with what we have here and now. There are wrongs to be righted and joys to be pursued. And yet, when we embrace the simple practice of saying thank you - to God, to those around us - we gain the emotional energy to move forward in our pursuits. At this moment, I want to say thank you to God, to the Jewish tradition, to this congregation for giving me set times to pause and regain that energy through the Jewish practice of gratitude. Thank you for inserting gratitude into my identity, into our identity as the Jewish people, shaping how we approach our every action and relationship. Shabbat Shalom and a belated Happy Thanksgiving.