The Torah teaches us that a name says something profound about its subject. It follows that a tradition that never has just one answer to any question doesn’t have just one name, either.
The Jewish people go by two distinct names, Yehudim and Yisrael, and their meanings are quite different. In this week’s reading, we hear the first of our names.
The patriarch Jacob marries Lavan’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel. Jacob makes no secret of his greater love for the latter. Leah hopes that bearing many children will win her Jacob’s love, and she names her first three sons in honor of her rivalry with her sister.
When her firstborn arrives she names him Reuben. “Look, a son!” she says. “Now my husband will love me.”
Leah names her next son Shimon, explaining that “God heard that I was unloved and gave me this child.”
The next son is Levi, or “accompaniment.” She says, “Now my husband will want to be my companion.”
The names she chooses reveal the pain of this complicated love triangle. When Leah bears a fourth son, however, something changes in her. She names him Yehuda, “thank God,” and says, “This time, I am grateful to God.” Then she stops bearing.
Rabbi Harold Kushner describes Leah’s transformation in this way: “Now, with a fourth son, her mood changes from rivalry to gratitude. … Her heartfelt prayer of thanks reflects her having grown from self-concern and a focus on what she lacked to a genuine sense of appreciation for what was hers” (Siddur Etz Chayim, p174).
We are the people of Yehuda, Judeans. The plural, Yehudim, is translated as “Jews,” but it might more aptly be “the thankful ones.”
Yet throughout the Torah, we are not yet called Yehudim. We are called by our other name, b’nai Yisrael, given to us in next week’s portion when Jacob struggles all night long with an angel of God and prevails. In the morning, he is renamed Yisrael, one who struggles with God. Beginning with the moment at Mount Sinai when we become a people, we are called b’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel. We are wrestlers.
We are Yehudim and Yisrael. How can we be both the thankful ones, grateful for what is, and also struggle because it isn’t good enough? How do we live in the space of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement” if we revel in looking around and saying, “Blah! This isn’t even a fraction of what it could be”?
One of my favorite prayers reads, “Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, shekacha lo ba’olamo” — “Blessed is God, Sovereign of all worlds, who created the world exactly as it is.” The Hebrew term for gratitude is “hakarat hatov,” meaning “to recognize the good.”
The good in life is already there. We just need to see it. We take nothing for granted. We don’t take for granted that we have food on our plates, or that our bodies work as well as they do. As we pray in the morning blessings, we don’t take for granted that our breath is returned to us for another day.
But to be a descendant of Jacob the wrestler is to challenge the status quo, to hold ourselves to a sometimes impossible standard, to demand that, as Heschel said, “what ought to be, will be.” As a result, many Jews are change-makers: social workers, educators and rabble-rousers. Our Exodus story reifies this notion each time we repeat it on Passover — we cannot rest as long as anyone is still enslaved.
There is a famous Jewish story about carrying two slips of paper with seemingly paradoxical messages in each of our pockets, taking each out when its words are most needed. Perhaps we should carry two slips of paper with our names in each of our pockets. One would read, “I am Yehuda: I am grateful for what is,” while the other would say, “I am Yisrael: I will always fight to make it better.”
Let’s embrace both names. May we never become complacent or cease our struggle to make the world more what it should be. And may we never take what we have been given for granted.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area and editor of the new book “Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives.” She can be reached at email@example.com.