The Matriarchs Rachel and Leah:
Tears of the Jewish Mothers, Part 1
"Laban had two daughters. The name of the older one was Leah and the name of
the younger one was Rachel" (Genesis 29:16).
The Torah tells us that both Leah and Rachel wept profusely in their lives.
Genesis 29:17 relates, "Leah's eyes were tender." The prophet Jeremiah
writes, "A voice is heard on high, the sound of lamentation...Rachel weeping
for her children."
This class will focus on the tears of Leah, while the next class will look at
Why does the Torah choose to describe one of its great female figures as a
woman with "tender" eyes? Why does the text bring out something seemingly
negative, when Leah has so many attributes? The Torah at times criticizes
character flaws, sins and the like, which are the result of free will, but in
Leah's case her "tender" eyes are a part of her physique, which is God-given
and beyond her control as an individual. Why then would the Torah focus on
something she has no power to change? What is the deeper meaning behind
Leah's tender eyes?
Rashi tells us, "Leah's eyes were tender, because she wept constantly in
prayer that she not have to marry Esav. People used to say that since
Rebecca had two sons and Laban two daughters, the elder daughter would be
married to the elder son, while the younger daughter was destined to marry
the younger son." This is to say that Jacob was to marry Rachel, while his
brother Esav was to wed Leah.
Given that Leah had the option to accept or reject the match with Esav, why
did she choose to cry over it, rather than simply refuse to marry him? The
answer lies in the fact that Leah was a prophetess. She knew that, in
reality, people's mundane talk about her marriage to Esav reflected God's
will for her. She saw prophetically that the two couples - Jacob and Rachel,
with Esav and herself - were to establish the Jewish Nation, by spawning six
tribes each. Leah was fully committed to this mission, while Esav was
clearly not interested. Leah's grief reflected her fear that, because Esav
was not up to the task, she might not have a share in building the Jewish
Leah's tears, as an expression of her prayer to be released from her destiny
with Esav, did have an effect. The Midrash tells us, "Great is prayer, for
Leah's prayer brought about annulment of the decree that she marry Esav, and
even allowed her to be the first to marry Jacob and have children with him."
She also gave birth to more tribes of Israel than any other of Jacob's wives.
Nonetheless, the way in which Leah came to marry Jacob seems to contradict
her greatness. While Jacob was supposed to marry Rachel - and had worked for
seven years for her father, Laban, in this regard - on the wedding night
Laban contrives to substitute Leah for Rachel (Genesis 29:22), and Leah
ultimately consents to proceed down the aisle and marry Jacob.
Where is the greatness in Leah's collaboration with this plan? Why did she
allow herself to co-opt Rachel's place with Jacob? Furthermore, why does the
Torah not criticize her for this choice? As stated above, the Torah is at
times outspoken about character flaws and errors in judgement. Leah's
actions seem to be precisely these types of mistakes.
To explore further, on a practical level, it made no sense for Laban to
substitute Leah for Rachel. He knew that Jacob would eventually discover his
trick and either divorce Leah, or that the marriage would be adversely
affected by his ploy. What then did Laban hope to gain?
In addition, Laban forces Leah under threat of death to replace Rachel. This
does not scare Leah, a woman who might not have been intimidated by such
tactics. The fact that Leah does go ahead and marry Jacob reflects the fact
that she sees God's hand behind both Laban's illogical actions and the
unusual circumstances propelling her towards Jacob. Thus, in spite of Leah's
own misgivings as well as her understanding of the difficulty she might incur
once Jacob discovers her, Leah chooses to be passive and proceed with her
father's plan. R' Aharon Kotler observes that, "All of Laban's machinations,
however, could not have succeeded had not God wanted them to, for it is
illogical to believe that Jacob could not have detected something amiss until
the morning...the marriage to Leah took place unimpeded because God's plan
required that Jacob and Leah become husband and wife." Evidently, Leah was
tuned into this reality.
The Midrash tells us that, in the morning Jacob asks Leah why she, daughter
of Laban the deceiver, has in turn deceived him? Leah responds that Jacob,
in effect, had done the same thing when he took the blessing from Isaac that
had been intended for Esav (Genesis 27:27). Such a retort is inconsistent
with Leah's stellar character. She was obviously not trying to justify her
own actions by pointing out a seemingly dishonest move of Jacob's.
(In fact, Jacob had taken his brother's blessing, because Esav's behavior
indicated he did not want a share in forging the Jewish nation. As mentioned
above, Jacob and Esav were to be partners, with Jacob as master of the Book -
or the spiritual realm - and Esav as overseer of the physical realm. Isaac's
blessing was intended for Esav, since the blessing itself was directed
towards the physical world, and this was the sphere of Esav's mission. Once
Jacob realized he was to be on his own, he took Esav's blessing, so as to
receive the tools to assume Esav's responsibilities).
In essence, Leah reminds Jacob of the co-opted blessing in order to indicate
to him that she, as Esav's partner, should now be partner to Jacob - the man
who has taken on Esav's work.
In sum, the marriage of Leah to Jacob, and that of Rachel to Jacob seven days
later, is not simply a polygamous story. Both women were intensely focused
on building the Jewish people, and the entire course of events in their lives
was motivated by their spiritual drives. This being the case, it is no
wonder the Torah tells us of Leah's tender eyes. Rather than a deficit, they
are key to her greatness, being they are the physical expression of her
longing to contribute to the rise of a Nation.
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2000 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and ProjectGenesis, Inc.