“And Leah’s eyes were tender, but Rachel was fair in form and fair to look at, and Jacob loved Rachel” (Genesis 29:17).
There was something about Leah’s eyes. Some commentators thought them possessed of an elegant beauty, others a misty attractiveness, or most peculiarly, that they were easily given to tears. “She thought her fate was to marry Esau,” Rashi writes. Unmistakably, it was not waiting for her absent suitor, but the choice of suitor, that caused Leah to “weep.”
Sultry or sorrowful, beside a beauty like Rachel, the Torah’s description smacks of unkindness. “Rachel was gorgeous, but her sister Leah had nice eyes,” is hardly an appropriate introduction for a foremother of the Jewish people, or anyone really. Of all the things to say about a person, why even mention this detail?
Oddly, the least generous translation reads the verse not as a depiction of Leah’s eyes but rather as a description of Leah’s power of sight. “And Leah’s eyes were weak (rachot),” is the literal meaning, according to Rabbi Abraham Ibn-Ezra, as in “weak children” (yeladim rachim) or the “weak of heart” (rach leivav). It is not how Leah looked, but how she saw, that preoccupies the Torah. And now the story falls into place.
Jacob, who fooled his “dim-eyed” father Isaac — who in darkness could not discern one brother from the other — is now fooled in turn via the “dim-eyed” sister of Rachel. “In the evening, Lavan took Leah his daughter and brought her to him. … But in the morning, behold, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Lavan: ‘What is this that you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I labored with you? Why have you deceived me?’ ” (Genesis 29:23-25).
Admittedly, there is much tragedy in the story. In his love for Rachel, Jacob labored seven years for her hand, while Lavan, who cared only to exploit Jacob’s love, contrives on their wedding night a scheme to have Jacob work another seven years. For Leah, what may we say? What is it to be loved, finally and only, because your father has schemed his schemes, and your husband believes you to be another? The closer Leah looks at her thieving father, or her beautiful sister, or Rachel’s husband-to-be, the less she wants to see. “And Leah’s eyes were weak.”
Yet there is a remarkable moral in this story. In the usual run of things, the mighty are victors and the weak their victims. But here (for once) the opposite occurs. In the Midrash, Jacob scolds Leah: “ ‘Why did you deceive me, daughter of a deceiver? Did I not call Rachel in the night, and you answered me!’… Leah said, ‘Even a (bad) barber has his disciples. Did your father not cry out Esau, and you answered him!’”
In this, there is a small victory for the vulnerable, and a great lesson for those who take advantage of the weak: If you exploit those who may not be blessed with the best of sight or the best of health, if you abuse those with a less discerning mind or who lack the security of wealth, beware, lest one day, deprived of light, you, too, receive your due. Isaac’s eyes were dim and those of Leah weak, but “the eyes of the Lord God are upon the Land, always” (Deuteronomy 11:12).
Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of the The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy of Jewish Religion and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.