D’var Torah for November 16, 2018

Today’s Midrash was inspired by the teaching of one of my colleagues, Rabbi Ellie Steinman:
This week we will be reading from parashat Vayeitzei. It involves Jacob’s journey back to Haran, his mother Rebecca’s home land. There he encountered and fell for Rachel and made the commitment to her father Laban that he would work for seven years to earn her hand in marriage. The Torah also teaches us about Rachel’s older sister Leah. However, we learn very little about the sisters. What the Torah does teach is that “Leah’s eyes were weak (rakot), but Rachel was beautiful of form and of face. Jacob was in love with Rachel” (Gen. 29:17-18).
Traditionally the idea that Leah had weak eyes meant she was unattractive. As is noted in the Etz Chayim commentary, “this does not describe poor vision, but eyes lacking in luster or lacking in tenderness, in sensitivity.”[1]
There is a competing Midrash which states that the reason why Leah’s eyes appeared weak was because she had been crying when Jacob saw her. Leah was afraid that just as Rachel would be married off to Jacob, her fate was to be married off to Esau.[2]
However, other modern commentators have noted that Leah’s eyes were not a detriment, but instead they were tender and pleasant, and they were, as the URJ Plaut Torah Commentary notes, “Leah’s main attraction.”[3]
And to add one final piece to this thought, when Laban switched daughters on Jacob, the only part of Leah that would have been visible to him would have been Leah’s eyes behind her veil. So, there is the possibility that he did indeed see something in her eyes that night.
As the old saying goes, “eyes are the windows into the soul.” Perhaps when Jacob looked into Leah’s eyes a second time, he saw past the tears as described in the Midrash, and instead he saw a reflection of deep abiding compassion — which is another way of reminding us that beauty is only skin deep. To truly see one’s beauty, we have to get a glimpse of their soul and see that a soul filled with compassion is one of the most beautiful souls one can ever hope to encounter.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
[1] Lieber, David L., ed. Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, JPS, 1999, pg. 171
[2] Genesis Rabbah 70:16
[3] Plaut, Gunther, ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, URJ, 2005, pg. 198