Shabbat Shalom: Parashat Vayeitzei

I said I’d try to post some of my weekly divrei torah, so we’ll see how this goes. For now, just realize that this is part of the weekly Hillel announcements, and is hardly edited for mass publication. I usually have time for just a quick spell check, and sometimes not even that. Just try to enjoy what will probably be a unique interpretation of selected passages from the Torah reading or relevant midrashim.

The following was the most controversial derasha I gave last year as an intern (not typed verbatim – I’m in the middle of theorizing Judaism right now). If you feel you might be offended or otherwise upset, know that you have been warned.
It’s bothered me for some time that Leah tends to get shafted in Jewish thought. She is considered a secondary wife, and usually is viewed as inferior to her younger sister Rachel. As is my typical iconoclastic tradition (how’s that for a paradox) I suggest that Leah might deserve more admiration than we normally give her.

Bereishit 29:17 gives us the first descriptions of Rachel and Leah: Leah has “weak eyes” while Rachel was beautiful. However, these descriptions are not exactly parallel. Leah is described by how she views the world, and Rachel is defined by how she is viewed by others. While The Torah does not describe Leah’s appearance, it’s descriptions of their actions allows us to compare the utlook of the two sisters.

Although Leah’s having “weak eyes” is usually interpreted to be a physical deficiency, it is an adequate description for her “hashkafa” (outlook) on the world. Admittedly, Leah did get a raw deal. She gets forced into a marriage with someone who didn’t want to marry her, which probably created some resentment. We are told she was hated in 29:31 (although we are not told by whom in particular – perhaps by everyone). In naming her first three sons, Leah revealed more about her situation. 29:32 – Reuven is named because “God looked at my pain, for now my husband will love me.” However, things didn’t get much better, as Leah was still feeling pain and isolation from her husband and this was reflected in naming her next two sons Shimon and Levi (29:33-34).

For her fourth son, Leah doesn’t recall her situation. She simply calls him Yehuda as a thanks to God.(29:35) We are not told if anything changed between Leah and Ya’akov in the interim. It is clear, however, that she was going through a difficult time, and not surprisingly her faith was tested. Note her perception of Hashem’s involvement in her situation. First Hashem sees the pain (29:32), then he only hears the pain (29:33). In 29:34, Hashem isn’t even mentioned. However, when Leah names Yehuda she only mentions Hashem and nothing of her troubles. While it is possible that her marriage to Ya’akov improved during this time, the Torah gives no indication that it did. Rather, it seems that Leah was able to come to terms with her situation the best that she could.

Rachel, by contrast, is portrayed by the Torah as impatient if not impulsive. Out of jealousy, she demands Ya’akov give her children, to which Ya’akov responds that it’s in Hashem’s control, not his own (30:1-2). Rachel later demands the “dudaim” from Leah (30:14). When she finally has her first son, Rachel is hardly satisfied. She calls him Yosef – as if to say Hashem should give her another son (30:24). While Ya’akov prepares to flee from Lavan, Rachel steals her fathers idols and is less than forthcoming about admitting it. (31:19, 34-35) When she has her final son, she calls him “Ben Oni” – interpreted as “son of my pain.” (35:19)

Midrashically, many of these events are reinterpreted portraying Rachel more positively. Also in context, we cannot possibly know what Rachel was thinking at the time of each event. What we do know is that both Leah and Rachel faced different types of adversity (whose adversity was greater will also be subjective). Rachel, the beautiful one, never really matured. She handles her pain the same way up until the end, ruing her current situation. Leah, the one with the “weak eyes” developed her outlook, and gradually was able to accept if not enjoy her life. She might have had weak eyes, but they became stronger over time.

It’s just a matter of perspective.

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5 Comments

  1. Yehudit
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