Parashat Vayeitzei: Jacob’s two wives – Leah and Rachel

In Parashat Vayeitzei we read the account of Jacob’s marriages and the birth of eleven of his twelve sons, the twelve tribes of Israel. In fact, Benjamin, Jacob’s twelfth son’s birth is also alluded to in the parashah in Rachel’s words with which she gives meaning to Joseph’s name, “God will add [Yosef] me another son.”

In contrast to Abraham and Isaac’s households, which still contained Ishmael and Esau, foreign elements that needed to be dispelled, Jacob’s family is the consummate “Jewish home” from which the Jewish people have evolved to this very day. The concept of a “house” is unique to Jacob, beginning with his referring to the Temple Mount as a “house of God” and following through to the next parashah, where it states, “and he shall build me a house.” Similarly, the prophet refers to the entire Jewish people as the “House of Jacob.”

Every detail that is mentioned in the parashah concerning the development of Jacob’s home has great significance, this time we will relate to the difference between his two wives, Rachel and Leah.

Mother of two

It is difficult to decide which of the two women is the more important. From Jacob’s perspective, it is clear that he loves Rachel from the very start and until the very end. He wants Rachel for his wife, and it is for this right that he worked fourteen years altogether tending Laban’s flocks.

In contrast, Leah enters Jacob’s house involuntarily, through Laban’s devious trick, and she remains second-best, as Rashi comments on the verse, “He called Rachel and Leah” – “First he called Rachel and then Leah, since Rachel was the mainstay of the home.” Let us not forget that Leah is also referred to as “despised” (at least in comparison to Rachel).

However, from the point of view of Divine providence, Leah apparently has a superior status. It is clear that the backbone of the Jewish people in all generations is primarily based on the tribes that were born from Leah, who also constitute the majority in terms of numbers. The tribe of Levi, for example, became the priests and Levites chosen to serve God (the “crown of priesthood”). Moses, who received the Torah directly from God’s mouth, was also from the tribe of Levi (the “crown of Torah”). Similarly, the tribe of Judah, another one of Leah’s sons, received the “crown of kingdom” and from them came King David and his pedigree. So we see that the three “crowns” afforded to the Jewish people were all given to Leah’s sons. Furthermore, it has been many generations since Rachel’s sons do not form an integral part of the Jewish people (since the exile of the ten tribes at the end of the First Temple period) and most of the Jewish people today are from Leah’s offspring. Even the Hebrew word meaning “Jew” (יהודי) relates to the tribe of Judah (יהודה).

But Rachel and Leah are both Matriarchs. Even though we may not be directly descended from Rachel, all the tribes are inter-included within one another and each one of them includes facets of all the others. Every Jew is welcome to pray at Rachel’s Tomb in Beit Lechem or at Leah’s tomb in the Machpelah Cave in Hebron. We can turn to either of them as we would to our own mother, like an infant in his mother’s arms, or as a lost child who comes home to his mother’s nest.

Here we are touching upon the very deepest foundations of the Jewish home, the soul-roots of the Jewish people and we reveal that they are constructed from two pillars, Rachel and Leah, each one contributing her own unique and indispensable emphasis.

A hidden world and a revealed world

Kabbalah and Chassidut explain that Rachel represents the revealed dimension of reality, while Leah represents its concealed dimension. One illustration of the difference between these two dimensions can be found in the distinction between the world of halachah, Jewish law, representing the Torah’s revealed dimension, and Midrash, Kabbalah, and Chassidut, representing the Torah’s inner, more concealed dimension.

Pairing Rachel and Leah with the revealed and concealed worlds is anchored in the revealed, the literal (pshat), meaning found in the Torah’s verses. Rachel is described as having, “beautiful features and a beautiful countenance,” qualities that are apparent to all who see her. She herds her father’s sheep alone, while her sister Leah is apparently hidden away at home. All that we know about Leah is that her eyes were “soft,” which doesn’t necessarily mean that she was not beautiful, but her beauty was certainly not as obvious as her younger sister’s. Rashi explains that Leah’s eyes were soft from weeping, another quality of someone who is involved with his or her inner world, in contrast to someone practical (like Rachel) who has little time for weeping and tears…

Jacob’s relationship with Rachel and Leah also reflects this very difference between the revealed and the concealed. Rachel is Jacob’s revealed wife, to whom he is consciously attracted and in whom he identifies his partner in life. In contrast, Leah is hidden from Jacob. Of course she too is his spouse, but Jacob apparently does not hold this fact in the forefront of his consciousness. Witness his initial surprise the morning after wedding Leah; he believed that he had married Rachel, and was not aware of Leah’s true identity. In other words, Jacob loves the revealed aspect of the world and therefore feels drawn to Rachel, but he is not so attracted with the world’s concealed dimension, which is why he takes no special interest in Leah.

Where can I find God?

One might imagine that only individuals who have an understanding of hidden mysteries will feel close to God, while those involved with the material world and its marked impression on our physical senses will not experience that closeness. Because God of course, is the most hidden of all. But this is a mistake. A connection with the Divine is just as important and possible for those involved with the inner dimension of reality and those involved with reality’s revealed aspects. However, the connection each forges with the Creator has a different vector force.

The individual leaning towards reality’s concealed dimensions shares Leah’s soul root. Such an individual must turn upwards to find God. He or she contemplates the Divine with increasing abstraction from physical matter. This individual realizes more and more that in the world we live in, God is completely invisible and that physicality conceals its Divine source, which is exactly why his soul root is drawn to hidden dimensions. There, paradoxically, God is more apparent. Such an individual can actually never reach his ultimate goal, because as quest to solve God’s mystery reaches higher and higher (or, some might say, deeper and deeper), there is always another level of mystery lying ahead. However high the seeker flies, God remains infinitely beyond his grasp. This is the secret of Leah’s soft eyes, eyes that constantly gaze deeper and deeper into God’s secrets until they are weary of gazing at these bright, supernal lights.

In contrast, the individual whose sensibilities drive him or her to reality’s revealed, material dimension shares Rachel’s soul-root. Such an individual is not find hidden matters very revealing. He believes that “The secrets are for God, our God.” Yet he too finds God, right here in our revealed world with great simplicity, by observing God’s commandments. The first halachah in the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law, presents a formula for finding God right here in reality’s revealed dimension with the halachah: “‘I set God before me at all times’ is a great principle in the Torah and the level attained by the righteous who walk before God.” This is a short, practical down-to-earth meditation that suits the individual attached with material reality: everywhere I am, God is the King who watches me. There are no secrets in this, everything is revealed and obvious, short and to the point.

It may not be easy to live with this constant awareness, which is why it is “a level attained by the righteous who walk before God.” Nonetheless, it is the task of reinforcing the revealed level, until we reach the awareness that everywhere we look, we see God before us. In this vein, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would sing his song “Dudele” (“du” in Yiddish means “you”): “Up – You, down – You, east – You, west – You, south – You, north – You.” Everywhere I look it’s You, You and You again.

Yaakov needs both Rachel and Leah

Loving Rachel as he does, Jacob is apparently a man of the revealed world. As much as he is a “tent-dweller” and as much as he studies Torah for fourteen whole years, depriving himself of sleep the whole while, nonetheless, his main interest lies in this revealed world in which we must work and which needs clarification and rectification (see last week’s article). This is why Jacob was not attracted to Leah. Unending meditation on God’s secrets is a pleasant game, but we need to rectify the revealed world. This is also how Chassidut explains that the main part of the redemption depends on “the construction of the persona of Rachel” – since the hidden dimension stands already rectified, while our main task is to rectify the revealed.

Yet, in contrast to Jacob’s obvious opinion, God wanted him to marry Leah too. We should never dispense of our interest in the hidden dimension, and in the end we must join it together with the revealed. If we try to make do with the simple and revealed consciousness that God is the King and he is in front of me wherever I go without experiencing the depths of the inner world, we are liable to dry up. We must delve deeper and deeper into the Torah’s mysteries, fathoming the hidden depths of its ocean and then the return to the revealed world will appear totally different. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev could sing the “Dudele” only because he was connected with all his heart to the hidden world.

By the same measure, we cannot dispense with finding God in reality’s revealed dimension, because the truth is that however wondrous Leah’s meditation on God’s secrets is, Rachel’s direct awareness of “I place God before me at all times” has something even more wondrous about it. Its wonder comes in the form of an awareness of the revealed world that admits that we are infinitely distant from God. Its wonder infuses us with a greater sense of wonder than we experience by pondering on the lights and worlds of the upper spheres, where God seems to somehow be closer and more accessible.

By rising higher we absorb more and more Divinity, but this is an infinite process and every time we achieve something finite it is like a drop in the ocean with reference to the infinite where every advance is relatively standing in one spot. Rachel understands that instead of rising heavenwards to discover “lofty lights” we need to know how to see the essence shining in our world. It is thus Rachel in particular who teaches us the wonder of God even more than her sister.

Mystery and marvel

In Chassidic terms, meditating on the Torah’s hidden dimensions is described as revealing God’s “transcendent” light, the light that surrounds all reality (and our consciousness), but can never be fully integrated. Meditating on the Torah’s revealed teachings is called meditating on God’s “imminent” light – the light that fills all reality and is immediately accessible to our intellects.

In Hebrew, “transcendent” (סובב) is numerically equivalent to “secret” (סוד)  and “imminent” is equal to the gematria of “marvel” (פלא). From now on, we can identify Leah as the “woman of mystery” while the Rachel is best described as a “woman of marvel.”

The higher we rise towards the transcendent light we reveal higher mysteries, and in contrast, the simple recognition that God’s imminent light is His kingdom on earth reveals the tremendous marvel – God Himself who chooses our world and recreates it at every moment.

““House of Jacob, let us go and we shall follow in God’s light:” may we all merit to join Rachel and Leah together – to grow with the marvel of the imminent light and to infuse ourselves more and more with the secret of the transcendent light, which only together manifest God’s perfect light.

from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class of the 6th of Kislev, 5773


  1. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing your insight with us Rabbi Ginsburgh. It “taste” like pudding to me.

    Shabbat Shalom everybody!
    Blessings too!

  2. Wonderful! Thank you so much!

  3. thank you for sharing these marvelous secrets

  4. Illuminating and down to earth, an excellant reaching Todah Ha Rav!

  5. I have also noticed something in the favour that was given to Leah by God– that even if she was not chosen my Jacob (she was the unwanted one, easily overlooked one), there is the “vav” in her life– the direct line of Grace (Grace of God) that is descending into her life, lighting up her being to be favoured by God, in Hid eyes, through His Grace. Through “vav”, Leah was favoured in the eyes of God (that’s not to say that she was more favoured by God than Rachel), but perhaps God wanted to show us that, like Israel, even though something is “small” and seemingly “overlooked”, God is the “Yud” that can make that important spark inside of it!

    Just my humble insight gleaned from this, your teaching, Rabbi.

    Thank you so much, my Rabbi, for this teaching, thank you for being here in this world at this time and age.


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