A person does not say, I am a Reubenite or a Simeonite, but, I am a Jew—Yehudi!”
—Genesis Rabbah 98:6 Every Jew is marked by a yearning to be grateful for the truth.
—Sefat Emet, Homily for Hanukkah, ca. 1902
We are, after all, the children of Jacob, that becomes Israel, but our destiny swerves in the footsteps of Judah. How do we know this? Everyone who reads the Hebrew Bible revels in the dramas of its first book of family feuds where we read of the blessing: “You, Judah, shall your brethren praise!” (Genesis 49: 8). Our Sages reason all this praise for Judah, especially coming from his parents, was due to this lone sibling’s courage amongst the twelve to have confessed the incident of Tamar. While fessing up to our shortcomings within the family may be the hardest thing to do, clearly it is one of the most important according to Judaism.
We praise Judah for his courage to make amends within his family and thus we learn that all those who follow that path of reconciliation, starting right in our own homes, will be called by your name, Judah— Jew/ Yehudi.
To be a Jew is to be grateful. How do we know this? For the very definition of being a Jew is contained in the Hebrew word for “Jew”— Yehudi which originates in “gratitude”—Hoda’ah. With the coming of the holiday season, as we gather with family, friends and community, Hanukkah has something to teach us about gratitude. We are commanded during these special eight days each morning to recite the hallowed psalms of Hallel as well as reciting the narrative ‘Al haNissim in our prayers to recount the wondrous story of the Hasmonean victory against all odds. In a sense we are commanded to be in a state of both “exultation”/Hallel and “gratitude”/Hoda’ah—how is that possible to feel both emotions at once? Sometimes it can feel like emotional multi-tasking—exactly the point!
Exultation is over the victory of the few against the many, of light amidst darkness, of hope in the face of fear. Gratitude is a different posture—being grateful for what we have because, God forbid, things could have been much worse. When we look around us, after Hurricane Sandy, after firms are still downsizing, after marriages crumble to the ground, after tragic deaths, loss and innumerable catastrophes in Israel and the world over, eventually we are forced to stop and say— “Thank God! If any of these things happened to me, I would have been so much worse off!” This may strike many as a “glass half empty” way of seeing the world, but sometimes that is precisely the spiritual wake-up call we need to take hold of Jewish lives again.
As the children of Jacob who are the community of Israel, all the while imprinted with the footsteps of Judah, let us celebrate this holiday season with hearts overflowing with exultation and gratitude!