Dante's vision of Rachel and Leah.

Leah’s Improbable Optimism

The first wife of Jacob endured a loveless marriage, but her story is one of perseverance.

When I pray the Amidah, I say the names of the biblical patriarchs in Hebrew. Our God is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And then, as Reform and some Conservative congregations do, I say the names of the matriarchs: our God is also the God of Sarah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Rachel, and the God of Leah.

Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. There is a certain music to that list of names, as the “ah” endings follow one another. It forms an AABA rhyming pattern that flows off the tongue. But from the standpoint of the biblical narrative, the order is off. The prayer lists the patriarchs by generation, from father (Abraham) to son (Isaac) to grandson (Jacob). The matriarchs start off that way, too. Sarah was the first generation, and Rebecca the second. Rachel and Leah, sisters, were the third generation, married to Jacob. But Leah was both the older sister and Jacob’s first wife. Why exactly do we name Rachel before Leah? In what sense was God the God of Rachel first?

In reading the story of Leah in Genesis, I am always struck by the sadnesses and complications of her life. She was the older daughter, and Rachel the younger. In the Torah’s short, suggestive first description of the sisters, it says that “Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful” (Gen. 28:17). It’s not entirely clear what “weak eyes” means. Readers generally feel a sense of contrast in this sentence. Rachel was beautiful, so having weak eyes must mean that Leah was not.

In my mind, having “weak eyes” does not say anything about how others saw Leah. Rather, it tells us something about how Leah saw. Her sight was weak. Her perception was warped. Perhaps Leah held an overly optimistic view of the world, one that smoothed over its sharp edges and allowed her to believe that somehow, some way, everything would work out for the best. How else do we explain her agreement to enter by deception into marriage with a man who desperately loved her sister? How exactly did Leah expect her story to end?

When the third patriarch Jacob comes to town looking for a bride, he sees Rachel first. He falls into immediate, gob-smacked infatuation, kissing her and bursting into tears. Desperate to marry her, the penniless Jacob agrees to work for Rachel’s father, Laban, for seven years so that he can earn her bride price. After seven long years, the time comes for their wedding, and Laban decides to swindle Jacob out of the bride he has pined for so long. Jacob married a heavily veiled woman whom he assumes is Rachel, takes her to bed, and then awakens to a surprise. “When morning came, there was Leah!” (Gen. 28:25)

The rabbis of the Talmud are flummoxed by the idea that Jacob would not have known that his bride was Leah rather than Rachel. They imagine an elaborate deception, in which the sisters shared agreement and agency. Rachel guesses that Laban will try to substitute the older Leah in her place at the wedding. She tries to warn Jacob that her father is deceitful. Jacob is not too worried; he arranges a set of secret signs which only Rachel will know, to prove that it is her. But Rachel imagines how humiliated Leah will be, when unveiled as an unloved imposter. So, she teaches Leah the secret signs. Jacob marries Leah under the false assurance that she is Rachel. This version adds to the dramatic irony of how Laban tricked the trickster. But it also offers a story where Laban does not have the final say. Both Rachel and Leah need to agree and collude in order to carry off the switch.

Of course, when Jacob discovers the switch, he is infuriated. His seven years of labor have gone to purchase Leah, the sister he did not want. He approaches Laban in a rage. Laban asks Jacob to take a minimal one week honeymoon with Leah before he marries Rachel as well and then works seven more years to earn her bride price. And the Torah makes it clear: Jacob “loved Rachel more than Leah” (Gen. 28:30). This is the unhappy marriage triangle in which Leah will now have to live.

Over the ensuing years, Leah’s marriage is shaped by her relative ease bringing children into the world, and by Rachel’s infertility. The sisters enter into a kind of baby-making contest. Leah always wins, which somehow makes them both miserable. Leah bears Jacob’s first four children, and the names she gives them are a diary of her suffering, four little wounds where the pain in her voice tears the Torah open. First, Reuben: “It means: ‘The Lord has seen my affliction’; it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me.’” Next, Simeon: “This is because the Lord heard that I was unloved, and has given me this one also.” Again with Levi: “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” Finally, with Judah: “‘This time I will praise the Lord’… Then she stopped bearing.” (Gen. 28:32-35). For Leah, God’s seeing her and granting her sons does not bring her the love she wants. Perhaps God also has weak eyes. For Leah, learning to simply praise God is the same thing as resignation.

Leah eventually has two more sons with Jacob, Issachar and Zebulon, and Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah. After an agonizingly long time, Rachel succeeds in bearing two much younger sons, Joseph and Benjamin, then dies.

The Torah and later Jewish tradition have trouble weighing the relative legacies of Leah and Rachel. The two sisters split traditional qualities of a wife between them: Rachel the beloved while Leah grasps at scraps of affection; Leah the mother while Rachel wrestles with infertility for so many years. Rachel dies young and Jacob mourns her abjectly. We are never told when Leah dies.

The midrash tries to grant Leah and Rachel a balanced share of the people of Israel’s future greatness. Great biblical leaders are descended from both sisters: Moses from Leah, and Joshua from Rachel. Kings of Israel are descended from both sisters: Saul from Rachel, and David from Leah. But ultimately, the dominance of Leah’s descendants is clear. The priests of the Temple descend from Leah’s son Levi. The messiah will descend from her son Judah via King David (Genesis Rabbah 70:15). I wonder if winning this contest would offer Leah any consolation.

Overall, the midrash’s readings of Leah and Rachel tend to offer the sisters more equality and mutual understanding than the text of the Torah alone. In the midrash, Leah and Rachel collaborate to get Leah married off to Jacob, and both sisters are responsible to some degree for the later greatness of the people of Israel. These readings aim to smooth off some of the story’s rough edges. Maybe the rabbis, too, had weak eyes.


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