The Torah’s description of Ya’akov’s two marriages, first to Leah and then to Rachel, is, at first glance, somewhat difficult to understand. We are told that Lavan had two daughters, the older one Leah, and the younger one Rachel. Leah, the Torah continues, had eyes that were “rakos,” which is commonly translated as soft, weak, or tender, and Rachel was of beautiful form, or complexion, and beautiful appearance (Bereishis 29:16-17). Ya’akov, the Torah tells us, loved Rachel, and proposed to Lavan to work for him for seven years, and then marry her. Lavan agrees, following which he worked for Lavan for seven years, which, in his love for her, seemed like several days, but, on the morning after the wedding, discovered that Lavan had given him Leah instead of Rachel. Ya’akov complained to Lavan about his trickery, and, eventually, married Rachel, as well. Many questions arise regarding this account, but a puzzling one is how Ya’akov did not realize, until the morning, that the bride he had been given was Leah, given the difference in appearance between the two sisters, as described in the Torah.
My friend, Rabbi Yitzchok Twersky, author of Amitah Shel Torah, has pointed out (although not in his book) that the medieval collection of midrashim, Lekach Tov, says that Leah and Rachel were identical twins, and, the reason that the Torah mentions the difference in their physical appearance is because, in truth, that difference was very slight, so that the appearance of Leah’s eyes was the only way in which the two sisters looked differently from each other. This comment of the midrash answers another question, which is, given the common translation of the word “rakos,” why does the Torah, uncharacteristically, speak in a disparaging manner about one of the matriarchs. Actually, however, the Targum, translates the word “rakos” as “yafin,” which according to Rav Noson Adler in his Nesinah LeGer to Onkeles, means “beautiful.” The Rashbam, as well, says that the Torah means to say that Leah’s eyes were beautiful, in that they were light, or blush, rather than dark. He adds that according to the Rabbis, the eyes are the salient feature of a person’s face, and if a woman has pretty eyes, her entire appearance is attractive. The description of Rachel, on the other hand, is of her overall appearance, not that focused on any particular feature. This approach, while it answers a number of otherwise particularly puzzling questions, still leaves us with the question of why the Torah placed so much emphasis on the physical appearance of Lavan’s daughters. Rav Aharon Kotler was strongly opposed to a simple understanding of the account, saying that it reflects badly on the personality of our forebears, and that there is a deeper meaning in the background. I believe that we can, with the support of certain commentators, explain what happened differently from the common understanding.
Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzato, popularly known as Shadal, explains the term “rakos” as meaning weak, associating it with the expression, found later in the Torah, of “rach ha-leiv” (Devarim 20:8), or “weak hearted.” The term, then he says, refers to an ethical character trait, and the Torah mentions it in regard to Leah so that we should not think that Ya’akov felt that Leah did not have good middos, or character. Perhaps we may further suggest that “einayim rakos” means a good eye, thus conforming with Rabbi Eliezer in Pirkei Avos, who says that this is the most important character trait that a person should develop. Rabbi Yochanan, his teacher, agreed, saying that the the good traits mentioned there are included in the trait of having a good eye (Avos 2:14). Rabbi Reuven Bulka, in his commentary to Avos, explains that this trait entails seeing the good in everyone. We may add that this includes one’s own self as well. Leah, then, saw the positive elements in both Rachel and herself, and realized that Ya’akov, in order to become the patriarch required for the Jewish people at that stage of its founding, needed to incorporate within himself the personalities of both the sisters. As Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explained, Leah represented gevurah, or perseverance, in her quest to become Ya’akov’s wife, and Rachel represented chesed, or kindness, in her acquiescence to Lavan’s plan of tricking Ya’akov, to save her sister from shame. The two character traits, combined, resulted in the trait of tiferes, or splendor, which Ya’akov represented in the process of the creation of the Jewish people. Leah, with her good heart, understood this and acted accordingly.