Thursday, September 07, 2006

Women in Judaism The Matriarchs Rachel and Leah:Tears of the Jewish Mothers, Part 1

Mrs. Leah Kohn

"Laban had two daughters. The name of the older one was Leah and the nameof the younger one was Rachel" (Genesis 29:16).
The Torah tells us that both Leah and Rachel wept profusely in theirlives. Genesis 29:17 relates, "Leah's eyes were tender." The prophetJeremiah writes, "A voice is heard on high, the sound oflamentation...Rachel weeping for her children."
This class will focus on the tears of Leah, while the next class will lookat Rachel.
Why does the Torah choose to describe one of its great female figures as awoman with "tender" eyes? Why does the text bring out something seeminglynegative, when Leah has so many attributes? The Torah at times criticizescharacter flaws, sins and the like, which are the result of free will, butin 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 Torahfocus on something she has no power to change? What is the deeper meaningbehind Leah's tender eyes?
Rashi tells us, "Leah's eyes were tender, because she wept constantly inprayer that she not have to marry Esav. People used to say that sinceRebecca had two sons and Laban two daughters, the elder daughter would bemarried to the elder son, while the younger daughter was destined to marrythe younger son." This is to say that Jacob was to marry Rachel, while hisbrother 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, inreality, people's mundane talk about her marriage to Esav reflected God'swill for her. She saw prophetically that the two couples - Jacob andRachel, with Esav and herself - were to establish the Jewish Nation, byspawning six tribes each. Leah was fully committed to this mission, whileEsav 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 inbuilding the Jewish people.
Leah's tears, as an expression of her prayer to be released from herdestiny with Esav, did have an effect. The Midrash tells us, "Great isprayer, for Leah's prayer brought about annulment of the decree that shemarry Esav, and even allowed her to be the first to marry Jacob and havechildren with him." She also gave birth to more tribes of Israel than anyother of Jacob's wives.
Nonetheless, the way in which Leah came to marry Jacob seems to contradicther greatness. While Jacob was supposed to marry Rachel - and had workedfor seven years for her father, Laban, in this regard - on the weddingnight Laban contrives to substitute Leah for Rachel (Genesis 29:22), andLeah ultimately consents to proceed down the aisle and marry Jacob.
Where is the greatness in Leah's collaboration with this plan? Why did sheallow herself to co-opt Rachel's place with Jacob? Furthermore, why doesthe Torah not criticize her for this choice? As stated above, the Torah isat times outspoken about character flaws and errors in judgement. Leah'sactions seem to be precisely these types of mistakes.
To explore further, on a practical level, it made no sense for Laban tosubstitute Leah for Rachel. He knew that Jacob would eventually discoverhis trick and either divorce Leah, or that the marriage would be adverselyaffected 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 bysuch tactics. The fact that Leah does go ahead and marry Jacob reflectsthe fact that she sees God's hand behind both Laban's illogical actionsand the unusual circumstances propelling her towards Jacob. Thus, in spiteof Leah's own misgivings as well as her understanding of the difficultyshe might incur once Jacob discovers her, Leah chooses to be passive andproceed with her father's plan. R' Aharon Kotler observes that, "All ofLaban's machinations, however, could not have succeeded had not God wanted them to, for it is illogical to believe that Jacob could not have detectedsomething amiss until the morning...the marriage to Leah took placeunimpeded because God's plan required that Jacob and Leah become husbandand 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 respondsthat Jacob, in effect, had done the same thing when he took the blessingfrom Isaac that had been intended for Esav (Genesis 27:27). Such a retortis inconsistent with Leah's stellar character. She was obviously nottrying to justify her own actions by pointing out a seemingly dishonestmove of Jacob's.
(In fact, Jacob had taken his brother's blessing, because Esav's behaviorindicated he did not want a share in forging the Jewish nation. Asmentioned above, Jacob and Esav were to be partners, with Jacob as masterof the Book - or the spiritual realm - and Esav as overseer of thephysical realm. Isaac's blessing was intended for Esav, since the blessingitself was directed towards the physical world, and this was the sphere ofEsav's mission. Once Jacob realized he was to be on his own, he tookEsav's blessing, so as to receive the tools to assume Esav'sresponsibilities).
In essence, Leah reminds Jacob of the co-opted blessing in order toindicate to him that she, as Esav's partner, should now be partner toJacob - the man who has taken on Esav's work.
In sum, the marriage of Leah to Jacob, and that of Rachel to Jacob sevendays later, is not simply a polygamous story. Both women were intenselyfocused on building the Jewish people, and the entire course of events intheir 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 adeficit, they are key to her greatness, being they are the physicalexpression of her longing to contribute to the rise of a Nation.