What does the term Jew literally mean?
The answer comes in Parashat Vayeitsei. The Torah describes the 22 year sojourn of Yaacov and his family in Mes Mesopotamia. During that time, his wife Leah had the privilege of giving birth to six of his children. Six of the heads of the tribes. At the times of the births of the first three, she was feeling particularly sad and embittered and this was reflected in the names that she gave to them.
But when it came to the birth of her fourth son, she was overwhelmed with the feeling of gratitude to God and when she was informed that the child had been successfully delivered she exclaimed ‘HaPa’am Odeh et Hashem’ – ‘this time I will give thanks to the Lord’. Therefore she called his name Yehuda. Coming from the root ‘Todah’ which means thanks. Fascinatingly it was only Yehuda which was to be the tribe to survive intact – and the descendants of Yehuda to this day are called ‘Yehudim’ or Jews. Therefore being Jewish has everything to do with being grateful. And this is reflected in our prayers in two different ways.
First of all, all of our thanksgiving prayers are recited while we stand. Such as psalm 100 ‘Mizmor Le’Todah – a psalm of thanks’, and ‘Vayevarech David’ in the early morning prayers, which includes terms of appreciation and thanksgiving. On Friday night we stand for the psalm of the day because in it we declare ‘Tov Lehodot LaShem’ – ‘it is good to give thanks to the lord’. We stand for ‘Modim’ in the repetition of the amida, for the Hallel prayer and so on.
Then there is a second way in which this is reflected in our prayers. During the repetition of the Amidah, the reader or Chazan recites the prayers on our behalf and we respond with Amen – with the exception only of one passage. When it comes to ‘modim’ – the prayer of thanksgiving, that is left up to each individual member of the community to recite. The reason is there is no concept of ‘shlichut’ – ‘representation’ when it comes to gratitude. If someone has done me a favour, I myself should pick up the phone to thank that person, I shouldn’t leave it to others to thank that person on my behalf. And that is why Modim is recited by everyone.
From the time of the traumatic birth of Yehuda, as recorded in Parshat Vayeitsei all the way through to today, embedded within our Jewish psyche is indebtedness – ‘hakarat hatov’. As result, we should express our gratitude to all others who give assistance to us – but most of all we should express our gratitude to our creator. It is no wonder therefore, that the very first words we say when we get up in the morning are ‘modeh ani l’fanecha’ – ‘I give thanks to you o’ God’ – and these sentiments of gratitude accompany us right through every single day.
Being Jewish means being grateful.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis