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Vayetzei - Leah's Weak Eyes

Leah's Weak Eyes

Further thoughts on Parashat Vayetzei

by John J. Parsons
www.hebrew4christians.com

Both Rachel and Leah are considered beautiful women in Jewish tradition, but a verse in this week's Torah seems to suggest that Rachel was the "beauty queen" of the family: "Leah's eyes were weak, but Rachel was shapely and beautiful" (Gen. 29:17). Why are Leah's eyes described as "weak"? Is this a euphemism for saying she was unsightly?  After all, Rachel is described in this verse as yifat mareh - "beautiful of sight" (i.e., attractive). Does this text therefore contrast the two women by implying that Leah was physically unattractive?  Or does having "weak eyes" mean that she was perhaps nearsighted? How are we to understand Leah's weak eyes?

The word translated as "weak" is the Hebrew word rakkot (רַכּוֹת), the plural form of the word rak (רַךְ), meaning soft or tender. Rashi comments that Leah's eyes were made "weak" (tender) from crying "until her eyelashes fell out."  But why was she so sad? According to midrash, Leah's eyes were reddened and puffy because she was constantly lamenting the prospect of marrying Esau. The adage of the town was: "Two sons to Rivkah; two daughters to Lavan; the older to the older, the younger to the younger."

Leah's eyes were tender and tearstained, then, but this is not intended to say she was physically unattractive. On the contrary, saying that she had "weak eyes" is a term of praise for her, since her greatest fear was to be forced to undergo an arranged marriage with Esau, and therefore she wept and wept to be the mother of the righteous.... God saw her tears -- and blessed her to become the most fruitful of the four matriarchs of Israel. Ironically, it was the less teary-eyed Rachel, who later died in childbirth, that was prophesied to weep for her children (Jer. 31:15).

Regarding this subject the Talmud states that the word rak (tender) connotes royalty (Bava Basra 4a). Indeed, two lines of royalty were destined to descend from Leah: the royal family of Judah (from whom would come King David and King Messiah) and the spiritual line of Levi, from whom would descend Moses, Aaron, and the Kohanim (the priestly class). Like their tenderhearted mother, both of these houses of Israel would shed tears of concern for the well-being of Israel.


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