Parashat Vayetzeh: Someone hears your crying

In telling us about Leah's ugliness, the Torah is helping us deduce why she merited marrying Jacob

Jacob and Rachel by William Dyce (1853) (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jacob and Rachel by William Dyce (1853)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week, we read about Jacob’s life in the household of his father-in-law, Laban. Jacob left his father’s home, actually escaping from his brother, Esau, who was furious with him and wanted to kill him. Jacob wandered to where his family had originally come from – Haran in Aram Naharayim (what is today south Turkey, near the border with Syria).
There, Jacob encountered a complicated challenge – dealing with his cheating father-in-law; a challenge that persisted throughout the two decades Jacob spent in Laban’s household. During those 20 years, Jacob was tricked by his father-in-law time after time. The most inconceivable of these tricks was when his bride was switched.
Jacob loved Rachel and wanted to marry her. But Laban tricked him and had him marry Leah, Rachel’s older sister. The consequences of this trickery would follow Jacob for years to come. The tension in his household ultimately led to the sale of Joseph, Rachel’s son, into slavery by his brothers, Leah’s sons.
It is abundantly clear that Laban is the negative character in this story.  Jacob is scandalously taken advantage of. Poor Rachel, who wanted to marry Jacob, is forced to give in to her sister and surrender her life’s dream and then become his second wife. But why did Leah merit marrying Jacob?
The Talmud tells the following story: “And Leah’s eyes were weak [rakkot]”
As she would hear people at the crossroads, who would say: Rebecca has two sons, and her brother Laban has two daughters; the older daughter will be married to the older son, and the younger daughter will be married to the younger son.
Rav continues: And she would sit at the crossroads and ask: What are the deeds of the older son? The passersby would answer: He is an evil man, and he robs people. She would ask: What are the deeds of the younger son? They would answer: He is “a quiet man, dwelling in tents”. And because she was so distraught at the prospect of marrying the evil brother, she would cry and pray for mercy until her eyelashes fell out (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Batra, 123).
The Talmud explores the meaning of the verse “Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel had beautiful features and a beautiful complexion” (Genesis 29, 17). Put simply, it says that Leah’s eyes were ugly while the younger Rachel was beautiful and desirable. The sages of the Talmud did not like the interpretation that focuses on Leah’s ugliness. But Rav, from the first generation of Talmudic interpreters, insisted on explaining the verse as is. Rav said that Leah’s eyes were indeed ugly, but that “this is not a denigration of her but a praise of her.” The Torah does not mean to tell us about Leah’s ugliness, but to infer why she merited marrying Jacob.
Leah knew she was intended to marry Esau and her younger sister was intended to marry Jacob. In the tribal social structure customary in the period of the forefathers, a young woman had no choice other than the traditional marriage contingent on her father’s consent. Leah, aware of Esau’s behavior, refused to resign herself to her fate despite seeing no way to change it. So, she cried. Her deep sorrow, her despair over a bitter future as Esau’s wife, brought her to such unceasing and inconsolable weeping that her “eyelashes fell out.”
God “hears the sound of weeping” in the words of the Italian poet of the eighth century, in the liturgy recited in many communities on Yom Kippur. Leah’s weeping reached the heavens and changed the course of history. Her fate was overturned.
Laban’s fraud and Rachel’s magnanimous concession were indeed tragic for Jacob. But for Leah, it was a life-saver, achieved because of the many tears shed in prayer.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.