The delicate perception – Parshat Vayetze

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“Leah’s eyes were delicate” (Gen. 29:17). This is the way the Torah characterizes our matriarch Leah in the section Vayetze. The adjective “delicate” may refer, both in Hebrew and in English, to either weak or attractive. There are exegetes who explain that Leah’s eyes became weak because of too much crying, since she thought that as a firstborn, she had to marry Esav, who was a firstborn, too. Others explain that her eyes were beautiful, attractive and nice.

In both cases, the word “delicate” invokes a balance that must be taken care of so as not to break it, so as not to let it get worse, if weak, or not to ruin it, if beautiful.

On the other hand we may also ask why the Torah has chosen to describe Leah according to her eyes. The word “eye”, in all its forms, appears about two hundred times in the Torah. Only in about ten of these it refers to the actual vision organ, the physical eye. In the other 190 instances the word “eye” refers to “sight”, “appearance” and “opinion”; it refers, then, to the perception of reality. For example, “he raised his eyes” refers to sight; “it stays the same” [lit. “it stays in its eyes”] refers to appearance; “it is good in his eyes” or “he found favor in his eyes” refers to opinion.

Let’s go back to Leah. It may be that the Torah does not speak about her physical eyes, but rather her way to perceive the world, her way to see. Leah had a very delicate, fragile, sensitive way to perceive reality.

“He loved Rachel, too, more than Leah” (Gen. 29:30). Since the text says “too” it implies that he adds the love for Rachel to his love for Leah. Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi, Narbonne 12th-13th centuries) explains: “this announces that he also loved Leah, even though he had not chosen her at the beginning to be his wife, but he loved her as a man loves his wife. He just loved Rachel more” (commentary on Gen. 29:30)

Yaakov loved her, but she did not perceive it: Yaakov’s love of his other woman, Rachel, made Leah perceive herself as hated. “The Lord saw that Leah was hated” (Gen. 29:31) and Radak explains that “Yaakov did not hate her, but loved her. Since he loved Rachel more, she thinks herself hated; i.e. that compared to Rachel she was hated” (commentary on Gen. 29:31).

It is as if she said “if he does not love only me, if it is not me the most loved one, the only explanation is that I am hated”. This feeling tainted her very existence. God offered her the possibilities of feeling different, of strengthening her self-esteem by giving birth, by creating new life. But Leah saw herself always as “the hated one”. Without the ability of feeling his husband’s love, she entered an existential struggle against her sister Rachel and against her own existence. Every child she bore had the imprint of this struggle: Reuven “because God saw [raah] my suffering”; Shimon “because God heard [shama] that I am hated”; Levi because “this time my husband will join me [yelave]. Only with the fourth child she calms down a bit and proclaims “this time I will thank [odeh] God” and therefore he was called Yehudah. But then, again, she continues her competition with Rachel without seeing, appreciating, perceiving the love that existed in Yaakov.

Through Leah’s life and her fragile perception, the Torah poses before us the possibility of learning to transcend our own fragile perception, so as to see the world beyond our own limitations, so as not to let us base our conclusions about ourselves on the competition with our fellows.

“Leah’s eyes were delicate”. And what about ours? It is upon us to make them either weak or beautiful, it is upon us to make our perception either negative or positive.

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