Thank you can be such a difficult word to say. Benjamin Disraeli is reported to have said: “I feel a very unusual sensation, if it is not indigestion, I think it must be gratitude”. But as a nation, we are actually known as ‘thanks’. The name Jew, from the original Yehudah, means thank you. When he was born, Leah named her fourth son Yehudah saying, “this time I will thank (odeh) Hashem”. For the first 800 plus years of our existence, during the time of the Kings and the first Temple, we were known as Israelites, meaning ‘prince of Hashem’. Then from the story of Purim onwards, during our most bitter exiles until today, we are known as Yehudim, for it is specifically when things go wrong that we need to remember to still say thank you.
Yehudah also means to acknowledge, and in this week’s Sedra of Vayechi, Yaackov tells Yehudah that his brothers will acknowledge him. It makes sense that the other brothers would acknowledge the son whose name means thanks and acknowledgement, but why did Leah wait until her fourth son was born to thank Hashem? Surely the birth of Reuven, Shimon and Levi were also reasons to thank Hashem.
The answer is the reason why thank you may be the hardest word to say: it requires a specific and detailed process. First we have Reuven from the word Reuh, to see. Then comes Shimon from the word Shemah, to listen. Finally comes Levi, from the word Yilaveh, to connect.
When Yaackov blesses Yehudah that his brothers would acknowledge him, he was teaching a lesson that had to last not just for that generation or during the secure and sanctified era of the Kings and the Bet Hamikdash, but also throughout the long and bitter exile. When things are going well it is easy to say thank you; it costs nothing and we are feeling good anyway. The difficulty is when the chips are down, when we are struggling and along comes a benefactor, a protector, someone who helps us. Their assistance is much more vital, so our thanks means more, it costs more, it reveals our dependency on their beneficence and therefore it is harder to say properly.
Leah with the intuition of a Yiddishe Mama understood this. She was the ‘accidental bride’. Her sister Rachel was the beloved one and Yaackov’s intended wife. Leah knew that she wasn’t meant to be married to Yaackov, never mind bear his children, the future Tribes of Israel. So when her first son was born, she didn’t just spit out a thanks, she stopped to look. She looked to see what she had been blessed with. She made eye contact with her benefactor. Then again with her second blessing, she still did not blurt a thanks, but she stopped to listen. She needed to hear and internalise the magnitude of her bounty. Similarly with blessing number three, she declared a connection with the source of her good fortune.
It was only after seeing, stopping to actually look at her blessing; listening and internalising that blessing and then discovering her connection to it could she truly say thank you and call her fourth son Yehudah.
On his death-bed, shortly before the Egyptian exile was about to begin, Yaackov reinforces that process. He teaches his sons that the reason thank you is the hardest word to say is because it’s not just a word; it is a full journey. Especially when it is said from a position of weakness. We must see and hear the blessings for what they are, develop a connection to our benefactor through the blessing, and then at that point we can truly say thank you. The real challenge is because thank you is such an easy ‘word’ to say, but such a hard emotion to truly convey.