This week we begin Jacob’s journey to Padan Aram and his adventures there. After a divine encounter with a ladder, he meets his beautiful cousin Rachel, and instantly falls for her. After a bit of deception on his father in law’s part, and with a good grasp of genetics, Jacob grows rich and eventually sneaks away from him. His now rather large family of two concubines, two wives, soon-to-be thirteen children and lots of livestock goes with him. But as he starts home, he realizes something: he will have to eventually confront Esau once again.
Unlike the story of his father’s dating experience, Jacob goes through a very different wedding experience. After traveling a while, he meets Rachel near a well. Jacob falls in love with this vision of beauty. He meets her father who happens to be his uncle Laban. After settling in, Jacob exchanges seven years of labor for the hand of Rachel. After the seven years, there is a great wedding feast. Laban switches brides at the last minute and Jacob unwittingly marries Leah, Rachel’s older sister. Jacob, although upset at this deception, simply negotiates another seven years to marry Rachel as soon as possible. The day after the mandatory seven days with Leah, he marries and jumps into bed with the prized Rachel.
But who are these two women? The text says Now Laban had two daughters, the name of the older one was Leah, the name of the younger one was Rachel, Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful. [Gen.29:16-17] This description has set up most of the folklore and Midrash about these two: an ugly sister and a beautiful one. More literally, a good looking one and one who can’t see.
It is clear Rachel is a good-looking woman. Once again, lovers are destined to meet at a well. But unlike Rebecca offering to water the camels, it is not the host who does the watering, but the guest. We are told by the text watering in this place is a communal event, an event all the shepherds get together and water their flocks together at the well. The well had a capstone, and it is only rolled off when everyone is there. For some commentators it was a matter of being too heavy, as the text says it is big. Yet I think there is something else going on here. Water rights as we have seen in other parts of Genesis is a big deal. A shared well could be a large cause for contention. With the amount of deception going on throughout this story, this might be a way to make sure no one takes more than their fair share of water. Jacob immediately breaks the rules and waters Rachel’s flock, and not the three flocks waiting for everyone. Here’s a case where everyone has been waiting in line for something and someone cuts in and takes for him or her self. No wonder when Jacob tells his story to Laban he says Surely you are my bone and my flesh [Gen 29:14]. Between the well and Esau, Jacob’s proven he’s just as much of a swindler as Laban.
After Leah and Rachel are married to Jacob, Leah pretty much pops out four children in a row, Rueben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Rachel throws a hissy fit. Instead of praying to God like her in-law’s did when infertile, she whines to her husband, Give me children, or if not, I die.[Gen 30:1] Later, she steals her father’s idols to take with her to Canaan without telling her husband. She even hides them by sitting on them when Laban searches her tent. So besides everything else, she’s a thief who still believes in idolatry.
In case you can’t tell I’m not the biggest fan of Rachel, yet we often venerate Rachel over Leah. I find Rachel to be one of the more reprehensible women in Torah. Yet this beautiful woman is what Jacob wants. Jacob, like many people in modern society, are only interested in Rachel: the eye candy, the supermodel or centerfold. This person is high maintenance and entirely self absorbed. She’s still a pagan, not believing in the god of her husband and his ancestors, but some small idols which can comfortably fit under her backside. But her physical beauty outshines everything else for Jacob. So he goes for it, and spends his time loving Rachel, who probably in today’s society would have left him or cheated on him the first time something better (i.e. richer) came along. In doing so, he ignores Leah, the one who can truly love him, and understand him.
All we are told of Leah is she feels unloved, and that she had weak eyes. In terms of Jacob’s devouring passion for Rachel, it easy to see why Leah would feel unloved. But it is this “The eyes of Leah were weak” that interests me more. As I mentioned, one easy interpretation of this is that Leah was blind. It wasn’t that she was ugly or had a bad personality, but that she was disabled. Of all disabilities, she has the same as Jacob’s father, Isaac, who had acquired dim eyes, very possibly at the Akedah. The Midrash comments on that weakness as an acquired disability:
That they had grown weak through weeping, for [people used to say]: This was the arrangement; the elder daughter [Leah] is for the elder son [Esau], and the younger daughter [Rachel] for the younger son [Jacob],’ while she used to weep and pray, ‘May it be Thy will that I do not fall to the lot of that wicked man.’ R. Huna said: Great is prayer, that it annulled the decree and she even took precedence of her sister. [Gen. R LXX:16]
The weakness came from the prayer of petition and lamentation. But unlike her sister, Leah prayed according to the rabbis. But weak is only one meaning for racot. It may also mean soft. While I was translating the Song of Songs, there is a line, repeated in several places
How beautiful you are my beloved
How beautiful you are, your eyes are doves [SS 1:15, 4:1]
While I was trying to figure out the imagery of this phrase, I learned a lot about doves. Doves are very strongly monogamous. So much so, they always are found as a pair. They hang out together and they often do not mate, or even find another one after the loss of their partner. Once I even saw an interesting, though sad sight. A dove had been hit by a car, and its mate just walked around it over and over, not matter what came near. It could not leave its partner. Maybe when we say that Leah had weak eyes, she did not see beyond the scope of her partner- she believed deeply in monogamy. Monogamy isn’t just an obligation to one’s mate. It is a deep belief in knowing one partner, and investing the time and effort into knowing them well intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually. In doing so something deep and connecting happens.
Unfortunately for Leah, she had to get connected with a joke like Jacob, and was, as the Torah tells us, hated compared to her sister. [Gen 29:31] That’s when God takes action.
I’ve mentioned before not to take pregnancy just as having kids when it shows up in the text. Instead look at it as an expression of growth and creative energy in the people involved. It is telling that it is Leah who has the most kids. Rachel has to go the Hagar route and use a surrogate at first, spurring Leah to do the same. But in the end, if one keeps score, it’s Leah with six boys and one girl (Rueben, Simon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, and Dinah). Rachel with two: (Joseph and Benjamin), Bilhah with two (Dan and Naphtali), and Zilpah with two (Gad, Asher). In short, if counting Dinah, Leah is more productive than the three others combined. It will be Leah’s children who will lead the people out of Egypt, It will be Leah’s children who are the first into the Red Sea, and the Kings of a united Israel, unhindered by the Philistines, and who build and work in the Temple. What’s more, with the assimilation of the tiny tribe of Benjamin into the whole, it is only the tribes of Leah, Levi and Judah, who survive the entire adventure of the Tanach and who we are named for: Jews.
We are the children of Leah, not the children of Rachel. Thus the text supports the concept of commitment, not the concept of playing the field. In the books of the prophets, or the Song of Songs this applies to God as well. We are intimately connected to God like the song, not harlots who sleep with any old idol as the prophets admonish. While appearance is important to make a connection, ultimately it is our strength of commitment that defines us.