Children And Deferred Dreams

Reflected in the names of her children, Leah grows to recognize her own worth, independent of Jacob's feelings for her.

Commentary on Parashat Vayetzei, Genesis 28:10 - 32:3

We all dream about our lives, our families and our destiny. Born into a world we did not create, motivated by hope, energy and drive, we spend our childhood and adolescence absorbing wonderful stories of adventure, heroes and fantasies.

And we dream. We dream of achieving the highest ideals of our fantasy life…of being president, landing on the moon or becoming a star. We imagine ourselves as wealthy, or famous or wise. Venerating a galaxy of admired adults, we imagine ourselves as one of them, as one of the best of them.

In the fantasies of children, life has no end; possibilities, no limit. And we are not alone in spinning those dreams. Children may aggrandize themselves, but they do so with the active consent and encouragement of their parents, grandparents, teachers and a supporting cast of thousands.

Two Requests

We urge our children on, asking of them only two requests; “fulfill all of our unaccomplished dreams,” and “take us with you.” Diligently, we drive our children to the ballet and music classes, to the ballparks, and urge them on with their science projects and religious school, all with the hope that they will become what we dreamed of and abandoned. If we could not grow up to become Nobel laureates, our children must. Let them become observant and knowledgeable Jews, business magnates or nominees for the Hall of Fame. Often without even becoming aware of our own fantasies, we impose them on our children.

We make peace with our own limitations, concede to reality only by shifting the object of our endless ambition. I won’t ever be a concert pianist, but my children might. This pattern, of reality disappointing one generation, causing them to transfer their hopes and dreams onto the next generation is as old as humanity itself.

We catch a glimpse of it as Leah realizes that her husband, Jacob, doesn’t love her as much as he loves his other wife, her sister Rachel. Wrestling with the pain, the anger and the disappointment of rejection, lonely in the face of her husband’s disinterest, Leah–the one with the soulful eyes–is also the one with tremendous hopes. In the depths of her misty pupils, one can see the pining for a passion she would never know; in the drops of her tears, her pent-up caring and affection leaking away.

Winning His Love

Each of her sons, one after another, embodies yet another desperate attempt to win over her husband’s love. Each one is, therefore, loved not for himself–not for being a beautiful infant. Instead, her children represent hope deferred and aspiration transferred.

Reuben is so named because “the Lord has seen my affliction” and “now my husband will love me.” Shimon, “because the Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also.”

Leah calls her third son Levi because “my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” Each one of these boys embodies yet another cry of pain and grief, another unsuccessful attempt to win the affection of Jacob. Ironically, all three sons will, as adults, disappoint and anger their father, producing tragedy for the aged patriarch.

With the birth of her fourth son, Judah, Leah finally achieves the inner strength to stop craving her husband’s approval.  Now she no longer lusts after his concern. She is able to stand on her own. Judah is a source of pure joy, in and for himself. “This time, I shall praise the Lord.”

The noted commentator, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (15th-century Italy) notes that this is the first child in the Torah whose name contains that of God! Like God, Judah is himself a source of joy, not merely a tool toward accomplishing some other goal.

Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, (12th-century Spain) observes that Leah’s choice of a name is a confession that “I will praise God because I do not desire more.” Therefore, she stopped bearing. In her own process of growth and maturation, Leah came to recognize her own worth, independent of the esteem of Jacob. While grieved by his rejection, she accedes to the reality of the present, without having to impose her dreams on her sons.

In our own lives, we, too, face disappointments and the need to relinquish our childhood ambitions and dreams. Like Leah, we can grow to accept ourselves and reality without saddling the next generation, our children, with the unrealized fantasies of their parents. And only then are we in a position to truly praise, to thank, and to love.

Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

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