John Glenn, Judah, and Israel

Heroes are rare. John Glenn is being remembered fittingly for more than being the first person in history to witness four sunsets in a single day.  He is being honored for his character as well as for his courage.

I recall once meeting Senator Glenn back in 1985. I approached him at an AIPAC banquet. Indicating that my parents had chosen my middle name, Glenn, to honor his 1962 feat, I curiously asked, “How often do you learn that newborns were so named?” He modestly smiled and said, “Too often.” While I suspect that few colleagues are similarly named, every Jew derives her or his identity from naming moments in this week and next week’s portions of Torah. 

Jews and Judaism are named after Judah who is named by his mother Leah. He is her fourth son. The names she gives to her first three sons focus on what she yearns for but cannot attain – the love her husband Jacob. Naming Judah as she does, Judah means “praise”(Gen. 29:35), indicates Leah’s transformation from an obsession over what she lacked to an appreciation for what she had. The Talmud says that from the beginning of time, nobody had yet praised God as Leah did (Brachot 7b). Leah’s extraordinary pivot for pleading to praise signals a worldview for Judah’s descendants, the Jews. Our cup overflows. Moreover, even after three strikes, we don’t lose hope. With a fourth swing we make contact with our people’s fundamental affinity for gratefulness.

Next week in the Torah portion, Jacob will become Israel following his nocturnal terrestrial struggle.  He refuses to part company with his companion until he can extract something positive from him, “I will not release you unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:27).  It is only after eliciting a blessing from a painful experience that he earns the name Israel.  Insisting upon helpful outcomes is also our fundamental national ability.

Our heroes harvest hope by generating thankfulness and resourcefulness.  May we prove worthy of our namesakes by bringing a measure of their character and courage to today’s challenges. 

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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