“Leah, the Fourth Matriarch”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In parashat Vayeitzei, Jacob leaves Beersheba, fleeing from his brother Esau who threatened to murder him. Upon his arrival at the well in Charan, Jacob meets Rachel who has come to water her father, Laban’s, flocks. In an impressive display of chivalry, Jacob steps forward, rolls the stone off the mouth of the well and waters Laban’s sheep. Jacob then kisses Rachel and raises his voice and weeps. After Jacob tells Rachel that he is her father’s relative, she runs home to inform her family.

Jacob meets the family and is invited to work for Laban. Scripture states (Genesis 29:16), “U’l’Lavan sh’tay vah’noht, shem ha’g’dolah Leah, v’shem hak’tah’nah Rachel,” Laban had two daughters, the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger one was Rachel. The bible informs us that Leah’s eyes were tender, while Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance. The Torah states emphatically (Genesis 29:18): “Va’yeh’eh’hav Ya’akov et Rachel,” that Jacob loved Rachel so deeply, that he offers to work for seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Because of his great love for her, the seven years seem like only a few days in Jacob’s eyes.

The trouble begins on the night of the wedding, when Laban switches daughters on Jacob. Jacob awakens in the morning only to discover that he has been given Leah as a wife instead of Rachel. Despite his bitterness, Jacob works another seven years for Rachel. Scripture tells us (Genesis 29:30), “Va’yeh’eh’hav gahm et Rachel me’Leah,” Jacob loved Rachel even more then Leah.

When G-d saw that Leah was less loved, He opened her womb, and she began to conceive children, while Rachel remained barren.

Rachel, the shepherdess, was clearly the favored wife. Scripture emphasizes several times the great love that Jacob had for her (Genesis 29:20&30) and underscores how beautiful she was (Genesis 29:17), but she was barren.

It is no coincidence that three of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, were all beautiful but barren. The fact that the Torah emphasizes the beauty of the matriarchs, underscores that the Torah values beauty in a woman. Similarly, the matriarch’s inability to bear children teaches the exceptional preciousness of each of the children born to the matriarchs. After extensive periods of barrenness, the desire for a child makes that child much more precious.

The Torah states in Genesis 29:17, that Leah’s eyes were “Rah’koat” soft, or tender. Perhaps, this means that Leah was not as beautiful as her sister. After all, if she were beautiful, her father would not have had to deceive Jacob into marrying her. Scripture says in Genesis 29:31: “Va’yar Hashem kee s’nuah Leah,” And G-d saw that Leah was unloved (literally hated) so he opened her womb, and Rachel remained barren. Even though the Bible uses the word s’nuah, it is not entirely clear whether Jacob actually hated Leah, or that, in comparison to Jacob’s great love for Rachel, Leah felt unloved.

Leah is the prototype of the unfortunate wife who is seemingly unloved by her husband even though she desperately loves him. Every child that she bears arouses in her heart hope that she will finally win over her husband, a hope that soon fades, as Leah is left forlorn and dejected.

Leah is a woman who must struggle to secure her fate, dignity and position. Although she was the first wife of Jacob and the mother of the majority of his children, she does not rise in status. In fact, only Rachel is ever called by scripture the “wife” of Jacob (Genesis 44:19). Leah always sees herself as secondary and less loved. It is doubtful whether she ever overcomes the guilt of being given as a wife to Jacob in a deceptive manner. She also might feel culpable due to the fact that she never alerted Jacob that Laban had made a switch. This may also be the reason why Jacob can never bring himself to love Leah fully.

The names of each of her sons reflect Leah’s great desire for Jacob and for his love. She calls her firstborn Reuven, stating (Genesis 29:32): “Kee ra’ah Hashem b’on’yee,” G-d has discerned my humiliation, for now my husband will love me. When Leah’s second child, Simeon, is born, Leah says (Genesis 29:33), “Kee sha’mah Hashem kee s’nuah ah’no’chee,” G-d has heard that I am unloved and has given me this one also, namely Simeon. The third son was given the name Levi, in the hope that with this child’s birth, Jacob will become attached to Leah (Yee’lav’eh), for I [Leah] have born him three sons. When Judah is born, Leah explains that she wishes to praise G-d because now, after bearing four sons, her husband will surely find her irresistible. This hope also proves fleeting, as Leah soon has to humble herself to simply win the right to spend an extra night with her husband by giving her “dudaim” (mandrakes) to her sister, Rachel (Genesis 30:14-16).

In Talmudic literature, Leah is always regarded as the fourth wife and the last of the matriarchs. The Talmud (Nazir 23b) asks: Who are the women in the tent? Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. The rabbis state in Midrash Bereishit Rabbah and in Bava Batra 123a, that Leah’s eyes were soft because she was forlorn, thinking that because she was the oldest daughter of Laban, she would have to marry the oldest son of Isaac, namely Esau.

Rabbinic tradition is also rather ambivalent about the mandrakes incident. After Leah “purchases” the right to spend the night with Jacob, scripture says: (Genesis 30:16) “Vah’yah’vo Ya’akov min ha’sah’deh bah’erev, v’tay’tzay Leah lik’rah’toh,” Jacob came in from the field in the evening and Leah went out to meet him and said, “It is to me that you must come, for I have clearly hired you in exchange for my son’s dudaim.” The Talmud in Eruvin 100b, explains that in the merit of this righteous act of enticing Jacob to perform the mitzvah of bearing another child, Leah merited to have another child named Issachar, who was the progenitor of many wise children who were endowed with extraordinary wisdom. It is said that even in the generation of the Messiah there will never be any equal to them in wisdom. There is, however, an alternate negative view of this act, recorded in chapter 4 of the Midrash, that maintains that it was immodest of Leah to directly demand of Jacob conjugal rights.

Both Rachel and Leah loved Jacob very much, and both were extremely supportive of Jacob in his dispute with their father. Readily acknowledging that Laban had deceived Jacob many times, they both agreed that it was high time to leave Laban’s homestead.

When at long last, Jacob encounters his brother Esau, we once again see Leah’s subordinate position in the family. Jacob, who is rightfully concerned for the security of his wives and children, takes action to protect them. As expected, he places Rachel and Joseph last, so that they would be the most protected (Genesis 33:2).

Sadly, even after the death of Rachel, Jacob is not drawn to Leah. Instead, he is attracted to Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaiden, and moves into her tent.

It is important to point out that despite the rivalry between the two sisters and their great personal suffering, we never find a single instance of dispute between them. To the contrary, our rabbi’s underscore the closeness of the sisters. Rachel reveals the secret code that Jacob had given her, allowing her rival to replace her as Jacob’s wife. Leah returns the favor to her sister, Rachel, at the birth of Leah’s seventh child, a daughter Dina. Since there is no explanation given for the child being named Dina (Genesis 30:21), the rabbis explain that Leah evaluated (danah) herself, and said: Jacob is supposed to sire twelve tribes, and I have already borne six, and four have been born to the handmaidens. If this child that I am carrying is a male, then my sister will not even be regarded as equal to the handmaidens. The child was thus transformed miraculously into a daughter (Berachot 60b).

Perhaps Leah is ultimately redeemed at the end of her life, for it is she alone who merits eternal rest with her beloved Jacob when she is be buried next to him in the Cave of Machpelah.

May you be blessed.