By Shai Held
It’s not often that a biblical character makes you want to cry, but if you pay careful attention to the matriarch Leah, she can break your heart.* Leah is married to Jacob, a man who does not love her — indeed, who barely notices her. According to the book of Genesis, Jacob arrives at his uncle Laban’s house and is soon smitten with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel, who is, the text tells us, “shapely and beautiful.” As for Rachel’s older sister Leah, we are told only that she had “weak eyes” — and Jacob pays her no attention at all (Genesis 29:17).
The way the story unfolds next is well known. Jacob works almost breathlessly for the right to marry Rachel; the seven years he serves in order to win her hand “seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her” (Gen. 29:20). But Laban deceives him, and Jacob ends up married to Leah, whom he does not love. After arguing with Laban over being tricked, Jacob agrees to work for seven more years so that he can be with Rachel, his true love.
Imagine Leah’s predicament, and her humiliation. She is older and less physically attractive than her sister. Perhaps her father thinks he is doing his elder daughter a favor, protecting her honor by deceiving Jacob into marrying her. Perhaps Leah herself harbors the fantasy that Jacob will learn to love and appreciate her. Imagine her feelings when, on the morning after her wedding, her husband’s only response to discovering that she, rather than her sister, is his wife is an excruciating mix of outrage and disappointment: “What is this you have done to me?” he demands of Laban. “I was in service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me?” (Gen. 29:25).
Perhaps we have sympathy for Jacob, and perhaps also for Rachel — lovers unjustly kept apart by a father’s machinations. But what of poor Leah, so undesired, and likely feeling so utterly undesirable? Jacob is now married to two sisters. The text makes no secret of his preferences, and neither, ostensibly, does he. Genesis tells us simply that Jacob “loved Rachel more than Leah” (Gen. 29:30).
But then something happens, the pathos of which is almost unbearable. God sees that Leah is unloved, and blesses her — but not her sister Rachel — with children. As she names each one in turn, her loneliness and her yearning come bursting forth. She names her first son Reuben, declaring that the name means “the Lord has seen (ra’ah/Reuven) my affliction”; it also means, “now my husband will love me (Ye’ehevani/Reuven)” (Gen. 29:32). One can almost feel Leah’s plaintive wish: maybe now that I have given my husband a son, he — like God — will actually see me, pay attention to me, love me. But nothing changes. The text’s silences speak volumes: Leah expresses a heartfelt hope for love, but Jacob is nowhere to be found.
So Leah tries again. Bearing a second son, she names him Simeon, declaring, “This is because the Lord heard (Shama/Shimon) that I was unloved and has given me this one also” (Gen. 29:33). Yet the earthly love she so longs for continues to elude her, and we can almost taste her desperate longing. Leah soon bears a third son, names him Levi, and declares: “This time my husband will become attached (Yilaveh/Levi) to me, for I have borne him three sons” (Gen. 29:34). Notice that when her first son was born, she had the temerity to hope that his arrival would elicit Jacob’s “love”; by the time the third is born, it seems she would settle for her husband’s “attachment” to her. At this point, the reader is ready to cry for her.
But now something seemingly inexplicable happens. Leah bears a fourth son, and we wait for yet another expression of her sadness and desolation, and perhaps also of her wish that her husband finally care for her. But something else entirely occurs: “She conceived again and bore a son, and declared: ‘This time I will thank (odeh) the Lord.’ Therefore, she named him Judah (Yehudah)” (Gen. 29:35). What has happened here? How does a woman mired in such deep misery, languishing in such excruciating lovelessness, suddenly undergo a total about-face and express gratitude rather than longing?
Leah has somehow found the courage to accept that her life is not going to turn out as she had hoped. She has spent years aching for the love of her husband, repeatedly convincing herself that perhaps it is just around the corner. But now, suddenly, she sees that this constant yearning will only generate more fantasy, and illusion, and the steadily mounting pain of a dream dashed time and time again. Something inside of her shifts, and rather than sinking in the sorrow of what she does not have, she is able to embrace the beauty and fullness of what she does. She is the mother of four children, and they will beget an entire nation, the people of God’s covenant.
Leah is disappointed, but she is also grateful — despite the intensity of her pain, she, too, has her blessings. With the birth of Judah Leah has discovered the awesome capacity to be grateful even amid her sorrows.
A Talmudic sage makes a surprising, even jarring statement about Leah. R. Simeon b. Yohai says that Leah was the first person in the history of the world who ever expressed gratitude to God (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 7b). What could this possibly mean? Of course, other people before Leah had offered thanksgiving to God. According to Psalm 139, Adam expressed profound gratitude to God for how wondrously he was made (Psalm 139:14). What makes Leah’s gratitude unique; what is it that establishes her as the first truly grateful person?
It is one thing to be grateful when everything is wonderful, when all of our dreams have been fulfilled and all of our hungers sated. But it is quite another to be grateful when life is complicated, when some of our most cherished dreams have remained painfully unrealized, when some of our yearnings are so intense that they threaten to burn right through us. Leah is the first person to feel and express gratitude even and especially amid profound sorrow and enduring disappointment.
Strikingly, the name Leah gives her fourth son, Judah, becomes the name of the Jewish people as a whole — Jew (Yehudi) comes from the name Judah (Yehudah). Who is a Jew? One who discovers the possibility of gratitude even amid heartbreak. That is why we are given the name that expresses Leah’s courage, and her achievement: a Jew, ideally, is a human being who, like Leah, can find her way to gratitude without having everything she wants or even needs.
Disappointment need not preclude gratitude, just as gratitude need not crowd out disappointment. Judaism does not ask us to choose one feeling or the other, but rather makes space — indeed, seeks to teach us to make space — for the sheer complexity and contradictoriness of human experience. Who better than Leah to teach us that a broken heart can also have moments of profound fullness?
* Author’s Note: I am grateful to Rabbi David Hoffman, whose essay “Living with Gratitude” planted some of the seeds of my own thinking about Leah. See here.
Rabbi Shai Held is Co-Founder and Dean of Mechon Hadar. His book “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence” has just appeared. You can sign up to receive his weekly essay on the Torah here.
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