Parshat Vayeitzei: What’s in a Name?
וַתַּ֨הַר ע֜וֹד וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֗ן וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַפַּ֙עַם֙ אוֹדֶ֣ה אֶת־יְהֹוָ֔ה עַל־כֵּ֛ן קָרְאָ֥ה שְׁמ֖וֹ יְהוּדָ֑ה וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֖ד
“She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This time I will praise the Lord.” Therefore she named him Judah. Then she stopped bearing.”
A short lesson on why we are called Jews:
After the twelve tribes of Israel conquered the land of Canaan, they struggled with the powerful empires that surrounded them. Working backward in time, there were the Romans, the Greeks, the Persians, the Babylonians, and before them the Assyrians. It was that empire, the Assyrians in 732 BCE, who conquered the Northern part of Israel, exiling ten of the twelve tribes. The remaining two tribes of Israel were Judah and Benjamin.
We are called Jews because the tribe of Judah was dominant after the loss of the other ten. The first use of the term “Jew” referring to us as an ethnic group by that name is in Kings II 16:6, a mere 19 verses before we read about the destruction of these 10 tribes.
In the verse above, Leah gives us a clear reason why she names her son Judah. His name means nothing other than gratitude. It comes from the Hebrew root י–ד–ה which means to give thanks. To live fully as a Jew means to live a life where gratitude defines who we are. We start each day with Modeh Ani, a prayer of thanks. We do not consume food without acknowledging the creator of that food. We have a special prayer for thanks at the end of every Amidah.
When we read about our namesake this Shabbat, I’ll challenge you, and myself, to live up to it. Say thank you. Feel thankful. Acknowledge not only God, but the people that help us every day. We are Jews after all.