On the face of it, Leah has been dealt a dreadful hand. Her marriage to Jacob was born of subterfuge, and the Torah relates that “God saw that Leah was hated, and opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Leah’s fertility failed to win her husband’s affections as testified by her statements in naming their first three sons, Reuben, Shimon and Levi. Each name is plaintive, speaking to her sorrow and desperate hope for improvement in her marriage. Jacob’s absence from the naming of his first three sons is notable; does he even notice these boys? Finally, with her fourth son, Leah shifts focus from her indifferent husband to her munificent God, saying, “this time I thank the Lord,” yielding the name Judah, the child of thanksgiving.
Our sages puzzle over the shift in Leah’s perspective and the precise meaning of her words. In the Talmud (B. Brakhot 7b) Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai notes that Leah is the first biblical character to use this language of thanksgiving, but what does it mean? Midrash Bereshit Rabbah looks to arithmetic—Jacob had 12 sons from four wives, so it should have been three apiece, but Leah has borne four (so far). Her gratitude is the product of excess—the prophetic knowledge that she has been granted more than her fair share. This sense of plenty, her relative fortune despite her unhappy marriage, leads Leah to invent the language of thanksgiving. This reading is affirmed by Rashi in his Torah commentary, though in its one-ups-woman-ship it is not entirely honorable.
Midrash Tanhuma gives Leah even more prophetic insight—for each child she anticipates future failures among their descendants. For Judah, she foresees his own failure. Yet Leah also anticipates Judah’s remarkable willingness to admit error in the matter of Tamar (and I would add, in the matter of Joseph in Vayyigash). The name Judah hints at another meaning—modeh—confession, and it is this humility of her son that causes Leah to thank God. Indeed, the Midrash adds that it is due to Judah’s willingness to admit error that the entire Jewish people is named for him, and that King David and the messiah will descend from his line. We Jews are intended to be the people who acknowledge—error, dependence, and gratitude.Continue reading