Weekly Message from Rabbi Panitz

Henrik ter Brugghen, “Jacob Reproaches Laban” (c. 1625)


How does one cope with being unloved?

In a world with so much sadness and violence, being loved—and being able to love—is often the “saving grace”. Without that ray of light piercing the darkness, there is so much personal pain and heartache added to the standing level of discontent, that one could spiral down into the abyss. So what is a woman to do, when she realizes that she is unloved?

This is the poignant heart of the story of Leah, the unloved wife of the Patriarch Jacob. She is doubly a victim. First, her father used her cynically, switching her for her sister, whom Jacob thought he was marrying. (Now that must have been quite a veil! It could have been the fashion inspiration for Taliban.) Jacob, realizing the deception at first light of morning, was given a hard bargain, but it was too late for Leah. Jacob could have his ardently sought Rachel, at the steep price of working another seven years. But Leah had nothing to show for her obedience to her father but a resentful and unloving husband.

Oh, she tried to get him to love her! Following the script of her Bronze-Age society, she did everything right. She gave him son after son. But with powerful economy of expression, the Biblical author shows us that none of it worked.

“Indeed, [Jacob] loved Rachel more than Leah…. The LORD saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son and named him Reuben…[meaning] ‘now my husband will love me’ She conceived again and bore a son and declared, ‘This is because the LORD heard I was unloved… Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, ‘This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons…. She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, ‘This time I will praise the LORD.’ Therefore she named him Judah. Then she stopped bearing. (Gen. 29:30-35)

For Leah, the fourth son represents a decisive moment of growth. The names Reuben, Simon and Levi are all explained by their sound similarity to words relating to Leah’s desire to get Jacob to love her. But in naming Judah, she switches focus. “This time, I will praise the LORD” is a positive from which we can infer the negative. No more chasing after the chimera of Jacob’s love; Leah will cherish what she has, the divine gift of motherhood.

The great classical Bible commentators illuminate the nuances of this act of naming, each one highlighting another aspect of this miniature masterpiece of literary art.

Rashi: “This time, I will thank/praise [the LORD]”—because I have been granted more than my fair share; so now it is upon me to give thanks.” Rashi’s insight is that Leah has moved from victim to survivor. No longer solely focused on what she does not have, i.e. the love of her husband, she is able to see what she does have, a generous portion of satisfaction from motherhood, for which she thanks God. Finally, she can see beyond her loss to reconnect with a larger truth of her life.

Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra: “This time” means, now that I have four sons, I will thank God that I do not desire to have more; as if to say, “I will thank the LORD who has given me all this, and it is sufficient for me.” Therefore, [the text continues], “she stopped bearing.” This comment takes the insight of Rashi one step further. When one changes focus from a fixed attention upon loss to a fuller appreciation of the balance of gain and loss in life, she can reach another and a better state of being. (Unfortunately, as it happened, when Leah did ultimately conceive again, she regressed to thinking about winning her husband’s love—but this shows us that emotional healing is not a once and for all phenomenon. People gain, then lose, and hopefully regain their healing insights.)

Rabbi Obadiah Sforno: “Therefore she named him Judah/Yehudah—because in this name there are the letters of the Glorious Name [of YHWH] and with it, the language of thanking [Hodayah]. All these names existed already, as we have found in “Judith” [the wife of Esau]… and [parents, naming their children] would choose from among these existing names those whose meanings corresponded to the circumstances [of their child’s birth]. This comment adds the insight that Leah was working within a tradition. The name “Judah” existed already, and she was choosing it because it was appropriate to her life. What this suggests is that when a victim is on the road to healing, she is able to approach her tradition anew, and find points of contact between the world preceding her life and her own situation. She is no longer alienated from the cosmos by her victimhood. Rather, she is reintegrated into the larger frame of life.

Jews today are, by and large, the descendants of Judah (and some, of Levi), sons of Leah. So let us honor our distant ancestress, Leah. Mother, you not only gave us life; you also modeled how to cope with life’s tragedies and emerge with added spirituality.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Michael Panitz