When we study about Rebecca, we see an interesting detail in her story. At the end of Genesis 24, we are told that Isaac loved Rebecca (יֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ) – and this is the very first time the verb “love” (in Hebrew ahav) occurs in the Torah in a romantic sense, as referring to a relationship between a man and a woman. Isaac’s feelings for Rebecca must have been very strong if the Torah finds it necessary to introduce this verb here.
Even though we do not have this verb referring to Abraham and Sarah, we have no doubt that Abraham loved Sarah. Most of you probably know that, even today, a barren wife presents such a huge problem in a Jewish family that her barrenness provides sufficient reason for a husband to divorce her. Yet, Abraham stayed with Sarah for many long years before she bore Isaac, in spite of her being barren – so there cannot be any doubt about his love for his wife!
It is clear, then, that so far we have been discussing the mothers that experienced great love from their husbands. The woman we are going to discuss today was in a completely different situation: not only was not Leah loved, but also the main word that we find in the Torah regarding Leah – as well as the main word of her own self-description – is “hated”. How did Leah deal with that? And how did God deal with that?
Let us start from the beginning. We all know the story: Jacob falls in love with Rachel, the younger daughter, works for Laban seven years in order to marry her, but on the wedding night, Laban substitutes his older daughter Leah, for Rachel. Before that, we read, “Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel,” This is how the sisters are introduced. The Torah says that “Rachel had beautiful features and a beautiful complexion,” but the only thing that we find out about Leah is that her “eyes were tender”.
The word “tender” (rakot ) has been the subject of many commentaries over the centuries. It could mean many things: beautiful, weak, short sighted – but I personally prefer the interpretation offered by Rashi (and some midrashic commentaries as well). Rashi says that the expression “tender eyes” means, “Leah was easily moved to tears.” This girl was very emotional and very vulnerable. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “She had none of the resilience that might have carried her through her husband’s attachment to her younger sister. She was thin-skinned, sensitive, attuned to nuance, easily hurt.”
Sometimes we find “little” details in Scripture that provide amazing insights and can be absolutely eye opening – and yet, they can be so easily missed, especially in translation. For instance, a small detail about Rebecca overhearing a conversation between Isaac and Esau in Genesis 27, speaks volumes: If Isaac was planning to bless their firstborn son and he did not even share that with Rebecca, that indicates that the relationship between husband and wife had changed and was severely damaged throughout the years. We would not know that, however, if we miss this little fact. In the same way, we can gather a lot from the “birth certificates” of Leah’s sons: if we pay close attention to their names, we will see, not only her pain, but her amazing spiritual journey as well!
“And the Lord saw that Leah was hated, so He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben, for she said, Because the Lord has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me. And she conceived again, and bare a son; and said, Because the LORD hath heard that I was hated, he hath therefore given me this son also: and she called his name Simeon. And she conceived again, and bare a son; and said, Now this time will my husband be joined unto me, because I have born him three sons: therefore was his name called Levi.”
Even in translation, it is clear that the names of her first three sons speak volumes—all Leah cares about at this point is her husband! She is asking, begging, crying out for Jacob’s love and affection! How many tears did her tender eyes shed? How many sleepless nights was she crying in her bed, feeling rejected, unloved, hated? It becomes even more obvious if we analyze these names in Hebrew. Even though Leah spoke about God seeing her affliction, in fact, the name of Reuben in Hebrew – ra’u ben – has the verb “to see” in plural and therefore implies multiple witnesses. It is as if Leah is saying: Look, everyone! I have a son! (The implications are clear: ‘I bore him a son, don’t you all think that should be enough for my husband to love me?’)
There is an interesting explanation attached to the name of the third son. The name of the most spiritual, the priestly tribe in Israel, actually comes from a very practical idea. The name “Levi” has the same root as the word “lelavot”: to accompany, to escort. Years ago, a Jewish mother with many young children explained this to me for the first time. “It’s very obvious why Leah called him Levi,” she said, “when you have two little children, you can still carry them with your two hands, one on each side; however, once a third child is born, you don’t have free hands anymore, you need your husband to carry one of the children.” Was this Leah’s simple and practical reasoning behind this name? ‘Now my husband will have no choice but to accompany me!’ Once again, all she cares about is her husband’s presence and attention!
Yet, we know that Leah became one of the Matriarchs of Israel, one of the Four – and she would definitely not be there if she remained just a bitter miserable woman pleading for her husband’s love! This story had to be a story of healing: Leah would not have been able to become the Matriarch if her heart was not healed, if she did not eventually reach peace, if she did not become reconciled to her circumstances and her life. Yes, she obviously went through years of continuous humbling and pain, but through this pain, God had been dealing with her and healing her. We do not know how many tears her tender eyes shed or how many hours she spent crying desperately before the Lord, asking Him to cleanse her heart from envy and jealousy, to strengthen her, and to give her peace. However, by the end of Genesis 29, we clearly see this accomplished healing in the name of her fourth son, as we read a completely different report:
“And she conceived again, and bare a son: and she said, Now will I praise the LORD: therefore she called his name Judah”
How different is this naming from the naming of the first three sons! Now we see a woman who wants to praise the Lord – to praise Him regardless of her circumstances. The circumstances did not change, by the way: she was still the less-loved wife, she still suffered from that, she didn’t stop loving her husband, she didn’t stop longing for his love and affection – and the name of her fifth and sixth sons show that! However, the spiritual journey we just traced, reveals to us a woman who chooses to praise the Lord, no matter what— and that is why she becomes one of the Matriarchs in Israel.