This week's parsha
Why Jacob Loved Rachel ... but also had to marry Leah
The Torah describes Rachel as having beautiful features and a beautiful complexion, and Leah as having tender eyes.
It's unusual for the Torah to spill ink illustrating the people or places mentioned. It is also unusual that Leah is (seemingly) publicly disparaged. On principle, the Torah goes out of its way to avoid unnecessary critical descriptions, and yet it openly contrasts Rachel's beauty to Leah's tender eyes. In light of this principle, the biblical commentator Rashi deduces that Leah's tender eyes allude to her incessant weeping: her eyes were red and soft from the many tears she shed. She wept in prayer, entreating G-d to shift the course of her destiny. She had been destined to marry Esau, coarse and corrupt as he was, and she prayed earnestly that her fate be changed.
So potent were her prayers that she married Jacob instead of Esau. The Talmud displays Leah as the paradigm of effective prayer, because her communication with G-d actually rewrote her life's script. She is identified by the Torah with her tears, an expression of the fresh enthusiasm and tender sincerity of her compelling prayers. Day in and day out she lifted her voice to heaven, and her words never became stale from repetition.
Later, when Leah was expecting her seventh child, she prayed to G-d that it not be a baby boy, lest she appropriate so many of the twelve sons destined to Jacob that her sister Rachel would be left to contribute just one. Miraculously, the male fetus in her womb flipped genders and became a female baby -- Dinah. Once again, Leah's prayers, like a perfectly poised arrow, reach straight to heaven, and her fate shifts.
The great rebbe and Kabbalist Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that Leah's soul stemmed from the world of thought, while Rachel's soul was from the world of speech. Leah was introspective, a master of meditation and internal communication, plumbing the depths of her soul and always emerging with a newfound appreciation of G-d. She was a paradigm of humility and innocence, her eyes tender from an outpouring of fresh emotion.
Rachel was different. She was a communicator, charismatic and appealing to others. She commanded a sphere of influence. Her beautiful complexion alludes to the shining of her countenance. Her Hebrew name, Rochel, is numerically equivalence to the phrase vayehi ohr, "and there was light," both equaling 238. With Rachel there was light; the environment was illuminated with her presence.
This explains Jacob's unusually dramatic reaction to Rachel. Moments after meeting her, "Jacob kissed Rachel, and he raised his voice and wept." Jacob realized that he was destined to breed a family that would become the chosen nation, the nation that would be a light unto the world. His twelve children would have to uphold the torch of morality and spirituality in a world that would often resist this message. And here was Rachel, a character perfectly suited for the job. She could mother and groom a family of effective communicators.
Why then did Jacob raise his voice and weep? Here too Rashi explains, based on the Midrash. Jacob saw in Rachel the perfect spouse and the perfect mother; but what troubled him was the knowledge that Rachel would not be buried with him. He understood that their lack of posthumous unity reflected a lack of perfection in their united mission. This perplexed and saddened Jacob, and he wept.
What Jacob did not realize was that the missing component in the construction of his family and of the Jewish nation was Leah. Rachel may have been able to contribute to the Jewish PR department, but Leah was needed to add the element of introspection and genuine prayer. Rachel's quality of communication and influence would be needed most when her children were in galut, exile, an unsupportive environment outside of Israel. Leah's qualities would be needed when the Jews would be safe and supported, left only to further develop their relationship with their Creator.
Jacob thought of his time in galut, and saw Rachel as perfection. But no sooner did his family leave Charan -- their personal galut -- and travel towards the holy land of Israel did Rachel die, her mission complete. She left Joseph, a son who inherited her capacity to create a dynamic sphere of influence. He would lead an entire country towards prosperity. Leah's sons, by contrast, spent their time as shepherds, meditating in the pastures as they walked beside their flock. Even in Egypt, they lived an insulated life in the city of Goshen.
Both Rachel and Leah mothered the Jewish nation. Rachel instilled within us the strength to exude a powerful and far-reaching aura of influence. Leah gifted us with the strength to tug at our soul strings and talk to G-d with integrity.