Leah’s lesson: Move through life’s adversity

Rabbi Dale Schreiber is a board certified chaplain providing Jewish care coordination for Pathways Hospice and Palliative Care and has a private practice, Renewal-in-Action, specializing in resiliency, spiritual development and compassion fatigue recovery. 

By Rabbi Dale Schreiber

Vayetze is the sixth out of 12 portions in the Book of Genesis. It opens after the dramatic episode in which Jacob tricks his father,  Isaac, and robs his brother Esau of the birthright and blessing belonging to the eldest child. Fearing for his life, Jacob goes out (vayetze). For the first time in his life, he is on his own. He does not yet know the cost of his deceitful behavior nor the destiny that awaits him. 

The text provides the fertile field in which the rabbis and later commentaries explored the specifics of Jewish family conflicts. Jacob, the tent-dwelling trickster of the first part of his saga, becomes a man who will deal with deceitful behavior many times in his life. The rabbis have a name for this — midda k’negged midda — measure for measure. In other words: What goes around, comes around. 

As the story unfolds, Jacob, having worked seven years to earn his right to marry the beautiful Rachel, is dumbfounded to find her older sister Leah in the marriage tent. The midrash reports that when Jacob challenges her about her deceit, she retorts: “Who are you to complain! When Isaac, your father, asked who he was blessing, you answered Esau.” 

Jacob challenges her father, Laban, who sidesteps the issue when he says, “Our custom is to marry the older before the younger.” He softens the deceit with an offer. If Jacob will remain with Leah for a full week, he will give Rachel to him as a bride — providing he works another seven years.

The text then takes us to the heart of the matter for me this week. 

God saw that Leah was hated, so her womb was opened.” 

The text is silent about who hated her. The assumption is that Jacob hated Leah because she wasn’t Rachel. In previous portions, though, brothers posed the problems. Cain killed Abel. Isaac’s birth forced Ishmael into the wilderness. Jacob stole Esau’s precious birthright. Torah now gives us an opportunity to look at the enmity of sisters, Leah and Rachel.

Leah’s compensation for being hated was the ease with which she produced sons. She eventually birthed seven of the 13  children in Jacob’s clan. But the text expresses her despair about her relationships in the names she gives her first three sons. Those names — Reuven, Simeon and Levi — represent her hopes that Jacob would look more kindly upon her, express some pride in her and give Leah some fraction of the devotion he showered on Rachel. Leah was yearning to feel loved. Rachel, on the other hand, was yearning for a child and secured two through her handmaid Bilhah. Following Bilhah’s deliveries, Rachel testifies to her own deep feelings when she says, “I have wrestled greatly with my sister and I have prevailed.”

For Leah, motherhood was little compensation for her despair;  for Rachel, it was everything. Rachel goes on to have two of her own children. Leah also bears more children. The rabbis comment on the name of her fourth son: Judah. Its meaning reflects thanksgiving and praise. In the mystical tradition, hod, the central letters of Judah’s name in Hebrew, are understood to mean endurance, majesty or honor.

Something has shifted in Leah. She is still the unloved partner in a complex family dynamic. She also has become a woman who, in cultivating a capacity to hold two conflicting emotions at the same time, can feel both suffering and gratitude.

The sages in the Talmud state, “From the day God created the world, there was no person who offered thanks to the Holy One of Blessing until Leah came and expressed her thanks.” 

Leah’s legacy is not just the six sons and one daughter who became the bedrock of our sacred story. It is not just about the discord between sisters in their overt competition with each other. Leah’s true legacy is her inner strength to accept what can’t be changed and to perceive her own worthiness and receptivity to the abundance of daily blessings. 

The stories in Genesis have much to teach about family dynamics. Esau and Jacob will reconcile poignantly in next week’s saga. The text never tells us whether Leah and Rachel make amends for their jealousies and hurt. Rachel remains Jacob’s beloved who dies in childbirth. Leah becomes reconciled within herself. In moving through despair and adversity in her life, she became wholehearted. Her eyesight, which we are told is “weak,” didn’t affect her vision of her world and her place in it. 

This is a great lesson for all of us. When we can move through our own adversity, becoming wholehearted in the process, we can be open to the abundance of blessings in our lifetime.