Our parsha tells the story of Jacob’s marriage to two sisters, Leah and Rachel. A simple reading of the biblical text suggests that Rachel was Jacob’s beloved—the woman he fell in love with at first sight when he met her by the well upon his arrival in Haran—whereas Leah was her unloved older sister whom Jacob was tricked into marrying against his will. But the Talmud contains several midrashim that tell a different story – a story that has much to teach about the complexity of love as it unfolds over the course of marriage.
The Torah suggests that Jacob’s love for Rachel was related to her extraordinary beauty: “Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel” (Gen. 29:17-18). In contrast, Leah is described as the “hated” wife: “The Lord saw that Leah was hated” (29:31). But the Talmud offers a different reading of these verses amidst a discussion of the laws of inheritance in tractate Bava Batra (123a). The rabbis consider the relative status of Reuven, Leah’s eldest son, and Joseph, Rachel’s eldest. They explain that God had originally ordained for Rachel to give birth to Jacob’s firstborn, but then Leah pre-empted Rachel on account of her prayers. While Rachel succeeded in winning over Jacob with her beauty, it was Leah who succeeded in winning over God with her appeals to divine mercy.
The rabbis link Leah’s prayers to her “weak eyes,” which the Torah contrasts with Rachel’s beauty. They explain that Leah’s eyes were weak from crying because she feared the fate that awaited her. But contrary to what we might expect, it was not the fate of being Jacob’s unloved wife that she feared, but rather the fate of marrying Jacob’s twin. The Talmudic sage Rav relates that Leah used to sit by the crossroads and listen to the gossip of passersby. The word on the street was that since Rivka had two sons and Lavan had two daughters, the oldest son was destined to marry the oldest daughter, and the youngest son was intended for the youngest daughter. When Leah heard that she was to be matched with Rivka’s oldest son Esau, she inquired about his character, and was told that he was an evil bandit, whereas his younger brother Jacob was a quiet tent-dweller. Leah was so distraught at the prospect of marrying the evil twin that she cried and prayed for divine mercy until her eyelashes fell out. While the prophet Jeremiah immortalized the image of Rachel crying inconsolably by the roadside for her exiled children (Jer. 31:14), in the midrash, Leah sheds her own share of tears at the crossroads.
Leah cried her eyes out until her tears drained her of her beauty, which was presumably one reason that Jacob found Rachel more attractive. Rachel was also the kindred spirit he fell in love with at first sight when he first arrived at the well in Haran; he met Leah only later, in the domestic space of the home of Uncle Lavan, who was eager to marry her off. Even so, according to the rabbis, Leah wasn’t truly hated. After all, Leah was one of the matriarchs and so she must have been righteous; how then could the Torah speak negatively of her? The answer, according to Rav, was that when the Torah refers to Leah as “hated,” it is not referring to Jacob’s hatred for Leah, but rather to Leah’s hatred for Esau – a hatred which God regarded as meritorious. It was because Leah hated “Esau’s actions” that God opened Leah’s womb and gave her children.
Though Leah was unlucky in love, she was favored when it came to fertility. She was the dependable wife who could be counted on to get pregnant with ease, in contrast to her sister who cried out in anguish, “Give me children or give me death” (30:10). A midrash in tractate Berakhot (60a) teaches that when Leah became pregnant for the seventh time, the fetus was originally a boy. Leah knew that twelve sons were destined to be born to Jacob. She had already birthed six sons, and the handmaidens had birthed four sons between them. This left only two more boys, and Rachel was still childless. So Leah prayed to God, who turned the child into a girl – Dinah. Once again, Leah appealed to God’s mercy, but this time she asked God to have compassion not on herself, but on the sister she had so long resented for being the more beloved wife.
Did Jacob always love Rachel more than Leah? At the end of his life, Jacob recalls the deaths of his wives in language that suggests that they each had a unique place in his heart. He recounts to his son Joseph that “Rachel died, to my sorrow, while I was journeying in the land of Canaan… and I buried her there on the road to Efrat” (48:7). The loss of his beloved Rachel was devastating for Jacob, but it is beside Leah that he asks his sons to bury him: “Bury me with my fathers in the cave which is in the field of Efron…there I buried Leah” (49:29-30). While Rachel represented the passion of his youth—a passion that never died—Leah represented the stable relationship that developed and deepened over time.
In a sense we might think of Rachel and Leah not as two separate women, but as two aspects of the same woman. Yehuda Amichai captures this notion beautifully in a short poetic fragment (my translation):
Morning now, and behold you are Leah; you were Rachel last night.
It wasn’t Laban who deceived me in darkness with spite.
It has always been this way – by darkness, by light–
Now you are Leah. You were Rachel last night.
Every Rachel in the evening becomes Leah the morning after. The fiery passion of youth is eventually contained inside the steadily-burning hearth. Perhaps for this reason, both women are mentioned in the marriage blessing at the end of the book of Ruth (4:11): “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel.” It takes both a Rachel and a Leah to build up the house of Israel, and in every loving partnership we can learn from their example.