by: Cheryl Pedersen *
There is a story told about the young Thomas Edison. He came home from school one day and handed a note to his mother. He told her, "My teacher gave this paper to me and told me only you are to read it. What does it say?"
Tears welled up in his mother's eyes as she read the note out loud: "Your son is a genius. This school is too small for him and doesn't have good enough teachers to train him. Please teach him yourself."
It was many years after Edison's mother died that he became one of the greatest inventors of the century. He was going through a closet and found the folded letter from his teacher that his mother had read to him. Upon opening it, he learned the true message the teacher had sent home with him: "Your son is mentally deficient. We cannot let him attend our school anymore. He is expelled." Edison wrote in his diary: "Thomas A. Edison was a mentally deficient child whose mother turned him into the genius of the century."
It is documented that his public school teacher referred to him as "addled" and she advised he should no longer remain in school. In today's education system, he might be labeled ADHD. The details of how his expulsion occurred are not documented. Therefore, the story of the letter from his teacher may be more legend than truth. We know he was homeschooled by his mother, a former teacher, and that as his fervent champion, she instilled in him much of what he needed to become the curious and focused inventor he was.
Aside from his copious discoveries and inventions, Edison left behind many pithy sayings that reflect how he became such a prolific inventor. It appears it had less to do with genius than with hard work:
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
“A genius is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.”
“The world owes nothing to any man, but every man owes something to the world.”
Thomas Edison's mother proved the power of words. She told her "addled" son he was too smart for school and, lo and behold, he became exactly the genius she saw in him.
In this week's portion we read about the births of Leah's first four sons. Perhaps Leah is not given proper due by the world. Everyone loves a love story and we are so enamored with Jacob and Rachel that we tend to forget Leah, the sister who was forced upon Jacob. Genesis 29:31 says "The LORD saw that Leah was unloved..." The Hebrew word used in the verse is "s'nu-ah" which actually means "hated." While we can be sure that Jacob did not hate Leah, the fact that he was in love with Rachel and preferred her to Leah, made Leah feel hated. Perception is reality.
The one thing Leah could do that Rachel could not was bear children. She bore son after son for Jacob. How she named them is detailed in Torah. Each of the first four in particular bore names that represented Leah's feelings of estrangement from her husband.
Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him Reuben; for she declared, 'It means: "The LORD has seen my affliction"; it also means: " Now my husband will love me."'
She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, 'This is because the LORD heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also'; so she named him Simeon.
Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, 'This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.' Therefore she named him Levi.
She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, 'This time I will praise the LORD.' Therefore she named him Judah. - Genesis 29:32-35
We can see the progression of Leah's attitude towards her relationship with Jacob based on the names for her sons. They are merely names, right? Just words and yet Leah knew the power they held.
In the beginning, she believed that a son would turn her husband's affections toward her. With the next one, she realized she was still unloved and felt that God was rewarding her to compensate. With the third, she was again hoping Jacob would see that she could bear sons and if he couldn't love her wholeheartedly, he would at least become more attached to her. It wasn't until her fourth son was born that she simply praised God for Him. That's what the name Judah means: "praise." Just a word, right?
At this point Leah seems to have accepted her lot. She had four beautiful boys and became focused on raising them rather than humiliating her sister who was still barren. Interestingly enough, it is Leah who gave birth to the son whose name, Judah, is lent to the Jewish people. She also gave birth to the son, Levi, whose descendants became priests and rabbis. Despite Judah's checkered life, filled with jealousy and deceit, in the end, he was the one who demonstrated for all the brothers what it means to repent and sacrifice self for others. He stood before Joseph, the brother he had sold into slavery, and offered himself in place of Benjamin.
It's worth noting that the feelings of estrangement from Jacob that Leah felt did not end with the birth of Judah. Rachel's handmaiden Bilhah bore two sons as did Leah's handmaiden Zilpah. Then Leah had two more boys and with the sixth she said, "God has given me a choice gift; this time my husband will exalt me, for I have borne him six sons." (Genesis 30:20). She was still trying to earn Jacob's love, still competing with Rachel for his affections.
There's power in words and there's power in a name. Rachel's name means "little lamb" and Leah means "weary." There's weariness in feeling unloved or unaccepted. Thomas Edison's mother proved what it meant to encourage and support her child. Imagine the kind of mother Leah must have been to not only produce so many sons ostensibly without Jacob's help, but in raising up the men she did: priests and rabbis, the strong tribe of Judah from which the Messiah will come. In the end, it was Leah not Rachel who was laid to rest next to Jacob in the Cave at Machpelah.
Words are the focus of Torah. It's with words that God created the world and words with which we create the world we live in. Words are how God gave us Torah, our instructions for how to live, and words that allow us to communicate with and educate others. Moses urged the Jewish people to teach their children about their past and the promises of the future. The consequences for using unkind words or gossip are the focus of many chapters in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
We must remember the power of words especially in our interactions with children and strangers. Compliments, encouragement, and expression of faith give others the self-confidence they need to succeed. Remember that in all your interactions: words hold power.
*NOTE: You can view more of Cheryl Pedersen's articles at her website - "I Am My Father's Daughter"