In Parashat Vayetze 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. Abraham and Sarah had an only child, Yitzchak. Yitzchak and Rivka have their their twins, Esau and Yaakov who end up in enmity and rivalry. Now Yaakov brings a dozen new children into the world in a few verses. Yaakov, 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 substitutes the older and less attractive Leah.
Seven days later Yaakov and Rachel wed, Yaakov having pledged to work another seven years for the right to marry Rachel. The Torah tells us that “Yaakov loved Rachel more than Leah” — a rivalry between brothers is mirrored by a rivalry between sisters. The sisters compete to provide Yaakov 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, Yaakov and the world. It is one of the few times in the Torah that the voice of the woman is acknowledged. Leah’s naming gives insight into the plight of the one less attractive, less loved.
The names Leah gives her children 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. Yaakov desired her younger sister, and her father has duped Yaakov into marrying her. She is the victim of this process and receives God’s compassion for her plight, becoming the mother of more children than Yaakov’s three other wives combined. Eventually, she will be buried by Yaakov’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.