I have a question for you: how do you respond when someone pays you a compliment?
When I was a kid and a teenager, I remember kind of fumbling for a response. I performed in bands and orchestras; I made speeches for student government and the Scouts; I led services in my synagogue.
“Great job,” folks would say. “You’ve got some real gifts.” Or, in synagogue, the Hebrew phrase, “Yasher koach.”
Something always felt awkward and uncomfortable. I’d try to be self-deprecating: “Oh, it’s nothing really.” Or I’d be kind of self-effacing: “It’s really not me — there are a lot of people who are good at this.” It felt awkward to get a compliment, and acknowledging it seemed almost a little self-aggrandizing.
But then someone along the way gave me some advice that has stayed with me ever since: When someone gives you a compliment, just say “thank you.” Why? Because what that person is doing when they’re saying something nice to you is giving you a gift — and they want to give you that gift.
So do them the kindness of allowing them to give that gift to you. Saying thank you isn’t a self-promoting response — it’s the opposite: It’s a response centered on the giver. Just say thank you.
I still, thankfully, get my share of compliments (my producer, Rivky, and I get them regularly for this show — so thank you!), and I still, thankfully, practice this advice. It’s so simple, but so profound and important. Just say thank you.
The Torah portion of Vayetzei, which covers roughly chapters 28-32 in the Book of Genesis, tells the story of a young person, Jacob, venturing out into the world and expanding his horizons.
He leaves the home he grew up in in search of a career, a family, and an identity. He succeeds in all three: He becomes a successful shepherd, he marries and has children, and he even gets a new name — Israel.
In the midst of this story, the Torah offers us a profound and simple lesson in gratitude. I mentioned that Jacob marries. Well, like many love stories, Jacob’s marriage is… complicated.
Because it’s not just one marriage — it’s actually several. At the same time. Involving sisters. And their handmaidens, which is kind of a fancy word for servants. Oy.
A quick refresh: Jacob is in love with Rachel. But Rachel has an older, unmarried sister, Leah. Jacob winds up marrying them both.
While Rachel has a difficult time getting pregnant, Leah has a bunch of babies. But Jacob clearly loves Rachel more. I think you can see the layers of how uncomfortable and painful this is for everyone involved.
Leah names each of her children, and the Torah explains each name as a new plea for her husband to love her. First comes Reuben, whose name is a prayer that Jacob might see Leah.
Second is Simeon, from the root “Shema” — a prayer that Jacob might hear her. Next comes Levi, with the hope that Jacob will be reconciled with her.
All these names are articulations of what’s missing. Leah, a participant in a difficult and complicated marriage, is, understandably, distraught. She wants to find love and recognition. (We can only imagine what it must have been like for kids born into this family dynamic.)
But then, with her fourth child, something changes for Leah. She calls him Judah, or Yehudah in Hebrew, which connotes gratitude, saying, “This time I will give thanks to the Creator.”
By the time she has her fourth child, finally, Leah is able to be happy and grateful for what she has — to see what’s here and not what’s missing.
What’s fascinating — and not an accident, we assume — is that Judah, the fourth-born child, goes on to be the leader of his brothers later in life. He becomes the ancestor of the tribe from which kings are born and, according to Jewish tradition, from whom the Messiah will ultimately come.
The lesson seems to be that gratitude — and the expansive and embracing emotions that come with it — are the soil in which healthy identities grow. It feels better to be grateful — and those good vibes aren’t just good for us but for everyone around us.
We continue to live through a prolonged moment of violence in the world and in Jewish life. The feelings we experience these days can often be hard ones: fear, anger, a kind of despair over how long this war will go on, how many innocents will suffer and die, how long until all the hostages come home.
During times like these, I can connect with Leah’s feelings of hopelessness, narrowness, constriction.
But that also tells me that moments like these are precisely when it’s even more important to try to learn the lesson Leah learns through the birth of Judah, and tap into a broader, more expansive place in my mind and heart.
So in the spirit of Leah and Judah, our Jewish mindfulness practice for this week can be one of gratitude. You may have heard about a gratitude journal. Well, this week, let’s try it: each day before bed, write down three things you’re grateful for — and be sure to include why you’re grateful for them.
When you wake up, consider reciting the traditional first words of the day: Modeh or Modah ani lifanecha: I am so grateful to wake up again, to be here, to be alive for this day.
Or you might make an intention to write a thank-you note each day, or to express gratitude when you’re in the store or on the bus.
When you pay attention, I think you’ll find hundreds of opportunities for gratitude every day. See if this week, channeling your inner Leah and Judah, you do a little more than you do already.
Let me know how it goes. Drop me a line at email@example.com. Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.