A Pair, But Not the Same
After Yaakov meets Rachel, the Torah (re)introduces us to Rachel and Leah as a pair – “And Lavan had two daughters” (Bereishit 29:16). From the very beginning of their story, we are to think of them in parallel – perhaps to look for those things that make this pair of daughters similar and different.
Two points of difference between them are laid out in that very introduction, as they are essentially assigned contrasting labels: Leah is the older one, and Rachel is the younger one; Rachel is the pretty one, and Leah is the one with the funny (“soft”) eyes.
Their ages play an obvious role in the story to come, and we might suggest Rachel’s beauty is an important detail as it contributes to Yaakov’s love for her (though some argue his feelings went deeper than that, and that her outward beauty was important only insofar as it reflected her inner beauty). But why are Leah’s eyes of significance to the story?
One famous midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 70:16) provides a possible answer or several, by suggesting her eyes were “soft” from crying. Why is it important to know Leah was a crier? It’s not just that she cried easily, but, says the midrash, she cried over something very specific: because rumors went around that predicted Rachel would marry their cousin Yaakov (“the younger to the younger”) and Leah would marry Esav (“the elder to the elder”) – and as rumors had also conveyed a bit of Esav’s character, Leah was devastated by the prospect of being matched up this way. And so, in the version in the Bereishit Rabbah, she cried – and prayed: “May it be Your will that I not fall into the fate of a wicked man!”
On one level, Rav Huna (in the Bereishit Rabbah passage) takes this account as a message about the power of prayer: “that it nullified the decree, and not only that, but she preceded her sister [in marrying the righteous Yaakov first].”
On another level, however, we might consider what the midrashic explanation tells us about Leah herself. First and most obviously, it tells us she doesn’t want to be attached to wickedness; presumably, she herself was righteous, or at least aimed to be. More specifically, however, the midrash portrays Leah as someone who prays. She is a person who knows God, a person who experiences depths of emotion, a person whose faith and sense of relationship with God is such that she turns to Him from those depths.
God and Woman
If we take the description of her eyes in this light, perhaps we are no longer contrasting the sisters as “the pretty one and the one with the weird eyes.” Rather, they are “the praying one” and [superficially?] “the pretty one.”
Note that Leah immediately recognizes God’s role in the births of each of her children, and names them accordingly (29:31-35), while Rachel seems at the beginning to be almost oblivious to God: “And she said to Yaakov: Give me children, and if not, I will die!” (30:1); it is Yaakov who reminds her of God’s role: “Am I in God’s place, who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?” (30:2). The naming of her children ultimately expresses a recognition of that role, but in much of the narrative, Rachel seems primarily drawn to human-based strategies – such as having legal children via her maidservant, and obtaining dudaim, a plant that according to many commentaries was said to encourage pregnancy.
A Lesser-Known Switch in the Story of Rachel and Leah
A full study of the characters of these two matriarchs, and their respective areas of strength and growth, is well beyond the scope of this forum. I will leave that for the reader’s further study and thought, and God willing, my own future writings. For now, I will close with this: Though Leah is originally presented as the sister who cries and prays for God’s help, while Rachel seems more focused on her own human efforts, they each grow and adapt some of the other’s strengths.
For instance, in the end, it is Rachel who is known for crying over their children’s future, and who is reassured that her efforts matter:
A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter crying; Rachel cries over her children. … Thus says Hashem: Remove your voice from crying, and your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your action…and the children will return to their border. (Yirmiyahu 31:14-16)