By: Chaya Sora Jungreis-Gertzulin
def. A woman who is head of a family or a tribe.
An older woman who is powerful and leads her family.
This week, the 6th of Kislev, November 30, marked the yahrtzeit of my beloved grandmother, Rebbetzin Miriam bas HaRav Tzvi Hirsch HaKohein, a”h. It is also the week we read Parshas Vayeitzei, and learn life lessons from our matriarch Leah.
We know there are no coincidences. Even the parshah that is read the week of one’s yahrtzeit is reflective of their life.
Leah, matriarch of our nation, and Mama, matriarch of our family, two matriarchs from different eras. Yet, each one left behind a common, meaningful message.
Our mother Leah understood the power of tefillah. With the birth of each child, she opened her heart and turned to HaShem. Each name came with a prayer, a bakashah, a plea to G-d.
Reuven – HaShem “ra-ah, has seen my pain.”
Shimon – HaShem “sha-mah, heard that I wasn’t loved. He has given me this one also.”
Levi – “ha-pa’am yee-la-veh ishi, this time, my husband will become attached to me.”
And then, Leah is blessed with a fourth son, Yehudah. “Ha-pa’am odeh es HaShem, this time I will thank HaShem”
Leah proclaims her thanks to HaShem, for the gift of a beautiful son which meant the world to her. Yehudah, from the word odeh, meaning to appreciate, to show gratitude. Odeh, also means to acknowledge, for when saying thank you, we admit to a good that was bestowed upon us.
Four sons. Four future shevatim, tribes. Amongst them, Levi, from whom the kohanim emerged. And Yehudah, the tribe of royalty.
Leah realizes how truly fortunate she was. She could have been depressed or disheartened, walking around with a chip on her shoulder. After all, she was living in Rochel’s shadow, knowing that Rochel was Yaakov’s first choice as a life partner. Yet, Leah looked at the blessings in her life, and was appreciative. Instead of comparing her life to Rochel’s, she concentrated on the gifts HaShem blessed her with.
Rabbi Yochanan says, “From the day that HaShem created the world, no one thanked Him, until Leah came and thanked HaShem upon giving birth to Yehudah. (Talmud Berachos, 7b). Though there were others before Leah who in fact did express gratitude to HaShem, it was Leah who lived in a state of constant thankfulness, with an “attitude of gratitude”.
Despite all the difficulties and the pain she endured, Leah chose to say “ha-pa’am odeh es HaShem – This time, I thank HaShem. I appreciate all the good things in life.”
In our own lives, we can take an important lesson from Leah. To live a life of thankfulness. To want what you have. There will always be someone with more, better, nicer. Someone with a more luxurious home, a more up-to-date kitchen, a more extravagant wardrobe, a more impressive car, or taking more exotic vacations. It’s toxic to be measuring and comparing to others. Count your blessings, and be grateful for what you do have.
As a nation, we are called Yehudim – Jews, derived from the name Yehudah – Judah. A nation for whom expressing gratitude is intrinsic to our very being.
We wake up every morning, with the words “Modeh Ani – Thank You HaShem” on our lips. Thank you HaShem for the gift of another day. Thank you HaShem for all of life’s blessings.
Like our Matriarch Leah, Mama was appreciative of everything around her. She didn’t have the easiest of lives, yet saw every day as a gift from HaShem.
Mama loved children, all children. To her, each one was special. Each one a proof that, even after the Holocaust, our nation is resilient, strong and thriving. For each yiddishe neshamah, Mama, just like our matriarch Leah before her, would say “Ha-pa’am odeh ess HaShem, this time let me thank HaShem.”
During the summer months, Mama often joined us at our bungalow upstate. At that time, our bungalow was quite small – one bedroom (which I shared with three children) and a kitchen. Mama would sleep in the kitchen, and get up early in the morning, with the biggest smile, ready to take my baby out for a walk. She was happy just to look at HaShem’s world around her. To listen to the birds, watch the sun rise and take in the scent of the pine trees. Mama’s greatest pleasure was watching the children in the colony, especially all the babies. She had true yiddishe nachas just seeing a new generation. Mama didn’t see a small bungalow; she saw a beautiful world. She taught me a lesson in appreciation.
I remember Mama joining me and my children on a trip to FAO Schwartz. She didn’t know where to look first. Mama loved the stuffed animals, the dolls, the toy cars and trucks, the likes of which she had never seen while growing up in Hungary. It was only a trip to a toy store, but for Mama it was a grand experience. Mama loved life, and the world around her. Every day brought a new experience to be grateful for. Mama couldn’t stop thanking me.
I was sharing Mama memories with my aunt, who told me of a time that she was driving on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn with Mama in the car. “How beautiful the street is”, Mama exclaimed. Ocean Parkway… beautiful? my aunt thought.
As if reading her mind, Mama added, “Just look at all the trees lining the street. It’s truly beautiful”.
To look at the world with Mama eyes. To see its beauty wherever you go.
King David, Dovid HaMelech tells us in Tehillim, “Hodu L’HaShem ki tov….” (Tehillim 118:1). While it is literally translated as “Give thanks to HaShem, because He is good….”, perhaps we can also understand this to internalize the powerful message that giving thanks to HaShem, expressing gratitude is also good for us. Saying thanks elevates us, it lifts us to a higher level. It is good for mind, body and soul.
From our matriarch Leah to Mama, the message is constant. To be a Yehudi, means to see the blessings in life, and understand that all is a gift from HaShem.
Chaya Sora can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was written L’zecher Nishmas / In Memory Of HaRav Meshulem ben HaRav Osher Anshil HaLevi, zt”l and Rebbetzin Esther bas HaRav Avraham HaLevi, zt”l