I got the idea for this D’var Torah from “Can We Be Grateful and Disappointed at the Same Time?” in The Heart of Torah, by Rabbi Shai Held, pp. 60-63.
It is no exaggeration to point out that the Torah pays much more attention to its male characters rather than its females. Even when women do play a role in the story, there tend to be fewer details and less character development. So it is especially important for us to pay attention to our biblical heroines.
Let’s talk about Leah. When we think of Leah, what comes to mind?
She is the older sister of Rachel. She is unloved. She has weak eyes. She has lots of children. Does she have any positive traits?
She is one of the Matriarchs. But even we demote her. Listen to our egalitarian siddur. Elohei Sarah, Elohei Rivkah, Elohei Rachel, v’Elohei Leah. She comes last, even though she is older than her sister Rachel. It’s like we are mentioning her name out of a sense of obligation.
Let’s see if we can learn more about Leah, who after all is one of our Matriarchs. What does she teach us?
As the story opens, we hear about Rachel, who is beautiful and shapely. Presumably, she has many suitors. After all, Jacob falls in love with her as soon as he sees her. Jacob agrees to work for seven years to win her hand.
Throughout this time, we hear about Leah only once. The Torah tells us that Lavan had two daughters. Leah has “weak eyes,” in contrast to Rachel, who is “shapely and beautiful.” This brief description of the sisters foreshadows the events to follow. The ambiguous description of Leah’s weak eyes is ironic, given that Leah is the one whom others fail to see.
In a society in which a daughter is only married by her father’s arrangement, it is safe to assume that Leah has never had a suitor. Nobody has come asking for her hand. Without deception, her father seems to think, he will never marry her off. On the night on which Jacob is supposed to marry Rachel, Laban substitutes Leah.
Leah is so invisible that Jacob does not even notice until the next morning. How does he react? Does he have anything kind to say after spending the night with Leah? He does not utter a single word to his new wife. Instead, he lets his father in law have it. “What is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me?” (Genesis 29:25) He is furious. We can picture the froth spraying out of Jacob’s mouth.
But what of Leah? Imagine her feelings as she sits there shamed and embarrassed. Leah already knows how little her father thinks of her. Her husband has just confirmed that he shares those feelings. How heartbreaking.
A week later, Jacob marries Rachel. The Torah wastes no time informing us that “Jacob cohabited with Rachel also; indeed, he loved Rachel more than Leah.” (Genesis 29:30)
Then we catch the first glimpse of compassion, although it does not come from any human source. “The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.” (Genesis 29:31) She may be invisible to her father, her husband, and presumably her sister, but God sees Leah.
She names her firstborn son Reuven, offering two explanations for her choice: “Ki ra’ah Adonai b’onyi—”The Lord has seen my affliction”—and ki atah ye’ehavani ishi—”Now my husband will love me.” While the Torah tends not to describe the inner feelings of its characters, Leah’s sadness, disappointment, and desperation are all too clear. She has another son, whom she names Shimon. Ki shama Adonai ki-senuah anokhi—”For the Lord has heard that I am unloved.” Leah names her third son Levi, explaining atah hapa’am yilaveh ishi—”This time my husband will become attached to me.”
Notice the verbs she employs for her first three sons: ra’ah, shamah, yilaveh. See me. Hear me. Become attached to me. Leah, unloved, feels unseen, unheard, and untouched. She is desparate for recognition.
Then she has a fourth son, whom she names Judah, Yehudah. Hapa’am odeh et Adonai—”This time I will praise the Lord.” Something has changed. The name Leah chooses does not reflect her suffering and disappointment. Her home life is still the same. Jacob still ignores her. But she seems to have made peace with it. With Yehudah, Leah offers her thanks to God. She is begins to carry gratitude along with her disappointment.
In the Talmud (BT Berakhot 7b), Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai declares: From the moment when the Holy Blessed One created the world, there was not a single person who gave thanks to God until Leah came and thanked him by declaring, “This time I will praise the Lord.” This is not precisely true. There have been others who have given thanks to God, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai surely knows this. So what is he getting at?
Rabbi Shai Held suggests that earlier expressions of thanks in the Torah all come from a place in which everything is wonderful. According to the Midrash, Adam offers a prayer of thanks when he notices how perfectly assembled the human body is. Noah makes a sacrifice to God after he safely exits the ark on to dry land with his family and all the animals.
Leah, in contrast, is not happy with her situation. Life is far from wonderful for her. But for the first time, she is able to express appreciation alongside her disappointment. Emphasizing the lesson, this child, Yehudah, the child of gratitude, is the one who will rise above his brothers. Even though he is the fourth born, Yehudah will step forward to be the leader in the negotiations with Joseph in Egypt. Yehudah, the tribe will become the dominant tribe in the South. King David will come form Yehudah, and when the monarchy divides, Yehudah will transition into the southern kingdom. Eventually, of course, Yehudah becomes the adopted national identity of the people of Israel, and today we call ourselves Yehudim.
We do not often think about the origins of that name, how it emerges out of a condition of sadness and disappointment. But does it not express a fundamental truth of human existence? Life is not how I expected or hoped it would be. But in that incompleteness, I still strive to see the good, and to express gratitude.
The name Yehudah offers a fitting complement to the other name of the Jewish people, Yisrael, which Jacob receives after wrestling with the angel. “You have striven with beings divine and human and prevailed.” Life is a struggle. To be a part of the children of Israel is to stay engaged with it.
Yehudah is about being able to hold thanks and disappointment in the same hand. If we look at the long history of our people, we see that it is a fitting name indeed. Has there ever been a time without disappointment? Through it all, we have struggled to retain a sense of optimism, and to give thanks whenever the opportunity arises.
We learn this lesson from Leah Imeinu, our Matriarch—Leah.