You may be surprised to hear that the word “Jew” does not appear in the Five Books of Moses. The Torah refers to our people as the Children of Israel, for we are the children of our patriarch Jacob, who was given the additional name “Israel.” Israel fathered twelve children, who became the twelve tribes of Israel.
The name “Jew” comes from the name “Judah,” which means “thanksgiving.” Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and his wife Leah. As we read in this week’s Parshah, “And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, ‘This time, I will thank [odeh] the L‑rd!’ Therefore, she named him Judah [Yehuda].”
Why, then, are all Jews called by the name of just one of the tribes, Judah? What is it about thanksgiving that captures the essence of the Children of Israel?
Thanksgiving is easier said than done.
We often look around and wonder why some of the people around us are so ungrateful. Why don't our children appreciate all that we do for them? Why does our spouse not show gratitude? Why do our co-workers take us for granted?
To understand why the feeling of gratitude is so elusive, we must examine the Hebrew word for “gratitude,” hodaah, the root of the name Judah. Hodaah also means “to acknowledge,” as in acknowledging that another’s opinion is correct.
Why do these two seemingly distinct ideas, thanksgiving and acknowledgement, share the same word? What possible connection do they share?
The answer is that the key to being thankful is acknowledging the other's perspective. To illustrate: a mother does so much for her child, yet does the child really appreciate it? The child may take the mother for granted, thinking that she is just doing what she is supposed to do as a mother. After all, argues the child, isn't this her job? The only way the child can genuinely feel grateful is if he adopts her perspective, if he appreciates all her sacrifices and all the time she lovingly dedicates to him.
The same is true of a spouse. We can say thank you for an act of kindness. But to truly feel grateful, we need to see the picture from the perspective of our spouse. We need to appreciate all the thought, feeling and energy that was invested in this one act. Only when we acknowledge and appreciate the other’s point of view—hodaah—can we say todah, “thank you.”
To be a Jew, then, is to possess the ability to see beyond the obvious, to acknowledge the other’s perspective. To be a Jew is to experience the pain of others, as well as rejoice in their happiness as if it were our own. To be a Jew is to acknowledge and accept the perspective of hope and joy even in the midst of great hardship.
There is an ongoing and long-standing dispute between the creation and the Creator. Our perspective is that our life, health and success is due to our independent efforts, and that the only one we need to thank is ourselves. From G‑d's perspective, however, the entire Universe is being brought into existence every moment by the word of G‑d. From His perspective, the only true reality is the G‑dly vitality within every created being.
The Jew has the responsibility to see the world from G‑d’s perspective, to cultivate the point of view that focuses on the spiritual rather than on the physical. The Jew possesses the gift of acknowledgement—and can therefore experience genuine thanksgiving.
By Menachem Feldman