The covenant, or brit, promised to our patriarchal ancestors, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, has two parts. They will found a great nation who will inherit the land. Yet, at the beginning of this parasha, Va’Yetzei, Jacob has fled from the promised land, childless. Twenty years pass before Ya’akov can return to the land; in the meantime he will begin to build the nation, which will be known by his other name, Israel. In parasha Va’yetzei, our ancestral mothers, Leah and Rachel, enter into a contest to have children, as the promise for our family to become a nation begins to blossom. Now Ya’akov brings a dozen new children into the world in a few verses. Ya’akov, the younger twin, falls in love with the younger sister Rachel. As he tricked his older brother, now his father-in–law tricks him. After working for seven years for the right to marry Rachel, her father Laban substitute the older and less attractive Leah.
Seven days later Jacob and Rachel wed, Jacob having pledged to work another seven years for the right to marry Rachel. The Torah tells us that “Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah.”; a rivalry between brothers is mirrored by a rivalry between sisters. The sisters compete to provide Jacob with children. In the names they choose for them, they are not trying to establish identities for their children, but rather making statements to God, Jacob and the world. It is one of the few times in the Torah that the voice of the woman is acknowledged. The names Leah gives her children provide insight into the plight of the one less attractive, less loved.
The names Leah chooses reveal the process of healing for one who feels neglected. She names her boys, in order: Reuven – look, a son; Shimon – the Lord has heard me; Levi – attachment; Judah – praise; Issachar – reward; Zebulon –honor; Dinah – judgment. In our times we tend to give our children names that memorialize loved ones or somehow suit the character of the newborn. But the names of these children, the ones who will become the house of Israel (we are for the most part descended from Judah and Levi), are Leah’s way of communicating what it means to be unloved and then healed. With the first children born to her she feels seen, heard and connected; with the others she acknowledges God’s grace with praise, reward and honor. In the end, naming her daughter Dinah, Leah acknowledges God’s favorable judgment of her, as proved by her life’s story.
Leah has been put in an unenviable position. Jacob desired her younger sister; her father has duped Jacob into marrying her. She is the victim in the process and receives God’s compassion for her plight, becoming the mother of more children than Jacob’s three other wives combined. Eventually, she will be buried by Jacob’s side in the ancestral tomb in Hebron.
Leah’s voice, the voice of the one less loved, teaches us an important Torah. While Leah benefits from God’s grace in her time of distress and despair, not all of us are so fortunate.
But her naming of her children remains a lesson for us as to what we need in our time of trouble and therefore what we need to give when we know of others in theirs: to be seen, to be heard, to be connected. That is what it means to be in a well functioning community. It is upon us to nurture the other – to look for those isolated, to give them a sense of connection and belonging, to give them the honor and praise they are due. It is only when we do this that we can fulfill the promise of the covenant, to be a great people, to live in the Promised Land.