The Yehudim are from Leah

Insights into the builders of the Jewish nation.

HaRav Avigdor Miller zts"l

Judaism Rachel's Tomb
Rachel's Tomb
INN:Toras Avigdor

In Mesichta Bava Basra (123a) the gemara quotes a statement from Rabbi Yonason as follows: רְאוּיָה הָיְתָה בְּכוֹרָה לָצֵאת מֵרָחֵל – The birthright of the Am Yisroel should really have come from Rochel – that means that the firstborn son of Yaakov Avinu should have been born to Rochel instead of Leah. And how do we know that? asks the gemara. דִּכְתִיב – A possuk is quoted: אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב יוֹסֵף – These are the generations of Yaakov, Yosef. Yosef, the son of Rochel, is considered the first one, the most important one, and that's because Hakodosh Boruch Hu had planned from the beginning that Rochel would be the primary mother of the Am Yisroel and that her son Yosef should be the bechor.

And throughout our history, that’s how people understood it; everyone knew that Rochel was the first choice. You remember when Rus gave birth to a son and the women of Beis Lechem Yehuda gave her a bracha – what did they say? “You should be כְּרָחֵל וּכְלֵאָה אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ שְׁתֵּיהֶם אֶת בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל – Like Rochel and Leah who built the house of Yisroel” (Rus 4:11). It’s Rochel whom they mentioned first. And that’s because even many years later, in the days of Rus, it was understood that it was Rochel who was the one chosen to be the builder of the Am Yisroel.

The Yehudim Are From Leah

But now we come to a queer puzzle. Because actually it wasn’t so – Rochel didn’t build the Beis Yisroel; instead it was Leah who became the mother of the Am Yisroel. Who are the Jewish people today? We’re called Yehudim. The name carried by the Jewish people today came from Leah’s lips – Jew, juif, jude, yid, yehudi, all these names come from the name Leah gave to her child, Yehuda, because to a great extent the Am Yisroel is made up of Leah’s children.

Of course, we give Rochel credit as well; she also contributed to our people. We still have among us from Rochel’s children. None of the shevatim went lost entirely because Yirmiyahu Hanavi brought back from every shevet a little bit. But it’s a minority – other than a few exceptions, the great masses of the Am Yisroel are from Leah.

רְאוּיָה הָיְתָה בְּכוֹרָה לָצֵאת מֵרָחֵל, say chazal; Rochel was supposed to be our primary mother. But it didn’t turn out that way. The psak of history, that means the psak of Hashem, is that it’s Leah, not Rochel, who is the mother of the Jewish people.

It’s remarkable that when we look around at the Am Yisroel, now and throughout most of our nation’s history, what we see is the offspring of Leah. Forever and ever until moshiach comes and reunites all the shevatim in Eretz Yisroel we will be called after Leah’s son Yehuda. Is anybody here called a Reuveini or a Shimoni? No; we’re all called Yehudim because for the most part we are not the children of Rochel. And even though we look back to Rochel with the greatest respect, but to this day and until the time of moshiach Leah is the mother of Beis Yisroel.

Rochel Was Chosen

And so we are faced with a big puzzle. Because we know that Yaakov Avinu certainly made no error; when he chose Rochel at the well, it was done with the instincts of a navi; it was a nevuah, Rochel was meant to be first – and she deserved to be first. And yet, it was Leah, the wife whom Yaakov had no intention of marrying, the one palmed off on him by his father-in-law, she’s the one who actually became the mother of the Am Yisroel, while Rochel who was supposed to be the first, ended up lagging far behind Leah in building our nation.

Of course we understand that it wasn’t just some mishap, a fluke of history. Everything Hakodosh Boruch Hu plans is conditional; all of His decrees are made in accordance with what human beings will subsequently do, and therefore a person with his or her merit could change the course of history. And so we understand that something happened to alter the plan of history.

What Did Leah Do to Win Out?

Now, when we look in the Torah, we find the answer: וַיַּרְא הַשֵּׁם כִּי שְׂנוּאָה לֵאָה – When Hashem saw that Leah was hated, so וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת רַחְמָהּ – That’s why He opened up her womb and gave her children (Vayeitzei 29:31). This is the explanation that Hakodosh Boruch Hu dictated to Moshe Rabeinu: Why did Leah became the mother of the Am Hashem? Because she was the less favored wife.

Now anything written in the Torah is complicated and therefore we don’t expect to be yotzei just with this brief explanation – right away we understand that there must be much more to it. Could it be that just because Leah felt snubbed, because she was suffering the status of the inferior wife, that she deserved such a great compensation that the course of history should change on her behalf? Such a compensation seems to us exaggerated!

Leah Was Not Hated

Now, the first thing is that we should clear the decks and point out that Leah wasn’t actually hated; that we know because it says right there on the same page that וַיֶּאֱהַב גַּם אֶת רָחֵל מִלֵּאָה – Yaakov loved also Rochel more than Leah (ibid. 30). “Also”, “More than Leah,” means more, but it means that Leah was beloved by Yaakov as well.

S’nuah means she was hated?! Chas v’shalom; it was only that relative to Rochel, compared to the affection that Leah knew Yaakov had for Rochel, she felt s’nuah. But there’s no question that Yaakov fulfilled the words of our sages, אוֹהֵב אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ כְּגוּפוֹ, that a husband must love his wife as much as he loves himself – that means a lot! A man has to be very much in love with his wife to love her like himself!

And yet, as much as Yaakov was careful with the feelings of Leah, as much as he treated her with honor and affection, the truth is that it was understood by everyone that Leah was an intruder – mamish she was butting in where it was none of her business.

Everyone knows the story from the chumash, when Yaakov Avinu set forth from his home towards Padan Aram to look for a wife - it was a momentous day in our history. All the Avos were intent on raising up families that would be servants of Hakodosh Boruch Hu – they wanted their  families to increase, that there should be a lot of children and grandchildren – but it was Yaakov who was tasked with raising the shevatim who would become the Bnei Yisroel.

And so Yaakov our father was going to fulfill now his great ambition to marry and begin raising up a holy nation; he meant business! That should be the  ambition of everyone by the way; everybody should get busy with that — don’t keep postponing. The sooner the better and the more the better. You’ll become important that way; by the time you hit seventy you have a whole tribe already! That’s what you’re supposed to be – a tribe. You have children and grandchildren and maybe great grandchildren, and you establish a foothold in the holy nation forever.

Yaakov: A Man Of Perfect Character

And that’s what Yaakov had in mind when he arrived at the well in Padan Aram – he wanted to get busy building a nation of ovdei Hashem. And when he met Rochel at the well, immediately he knew that she was the one. Yaakov was a navi and he understood right away that this girl was going to be his wife. It was min hashomayim; he knew that something would come out of this shidduch that would be very very important.

As far as Yaakov was concerned Rochel was the one and she would become the mother of the Am Yisroel; and so he made an agreement with Lavan that he would work for seven years and then he would be given Rochel to marry. And he faithfully worked those seven years looking forward to the great day when he would be able to take Rochel, the one chosen by nevuah, to the chupah and begin building the Am Yisroel.

And then what happened when that day finally came? There was a wedding, a big simcha, and suddenly in the morning Yaakov discovers that he was married to Leah! It wasn’t the one he asked for; the sister he didn’t choose was smuggled into his life. Now, it wasn’t the fault of that poor girl – her father pushed her in. But still she was a trespasser. “What’s she doing here?!” That’s what Yaakov was thinking.

Of course, he didn’t insult her; he couldn’t say, “Go away.” I’m sure that Yaakov didn’t show any disrespect to Leah. Although Leah was palmed off on him, this man of impeccable character – יַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם means that Yaakov was a man of perfect character traits – treated her very well. Now that Leah was his wife, so he loved Leah too.

Leah: The Second Wife

And yet, there was always that skeleton in the closet, the knowledge that Leah wasn’t the one. Everyone knew that she was only an afterthought and she therefore felt very uncomfortable in the house. She saw that she was second choice and it pained her to no end. When it says ki s’nuah Leah, it means what Leah felt – she felt s’nuah; she felt despised and neglected because after all she wasn’t asked for. And all her life she felt that stigma. There’s no question in my mind that Yaakov tried his best to cover up her discomfiture but Leah knew the truth, that she was supercargo, an extra passenger along for the ride. As much as Yaakov treated her well, Leah still saw that she wasn’t asked for and that’s something that a wife can never forget.

Of course, she had a great deal of tza’ar, a great deal of distress, because of that. All her life, Leah recognized her place in the home of Yaakov. If you read the chumash you’ll see that constantly she is talking to Hashem and weeping. Again and again.

There were times when she was even publicly snubbed. I’ll give you an example. You remember when they had to meet Eisav, so Yaakov put Leah and her children in front, where it was more dangerous, while he put Rochel and her son Yosef, behind them, closer to Yaakov. It was a very big snub. Now we don’t blame Yaakov for that. It couldn’t be helped. Yaakov understood that he came to Padan Aram for Rochel, and Rochel’s son, Yosef, was to him everything. And Leah had no complaints against Yaakov or Rochel. She was a tzadeikes and she understood that this is how it had to be. But it hurt her no end; she was in tza’ar all her days.

Leah’s Deep Desire

Now, Leah wasn’t a nobody – she was a very smart young woman. I won’t tell you my proofs for that, but from the gemara we see that she was a very wise young woman. And she understood that Yaakov wasn’t just somebody from their family in Cana’an. She understood he was a big somebody. The family of Leah and Rochel had studied the family of Avraham and they all recognized the greatness of that family. Even Lavan said, “I have discovered that Hashem is giving me success just because of you.” If the wicked Lavan admitted such a thing so you understand that it was something everyone was aware of.

And so Leah wanted with all her heart that Yaakov should accept her. Leah understood the greatness of Yaakov Avinu and she aspired to be a mother of Beis Yisroel. She was the second wife? So what?! Once she was married she knew that it was her opportunity, her destiny, to build the chosen nation. It was in her bones – she lived only for that purpose. She knew that there would be greatness in her posterity and she wanted to live up to that destiny as much as she possibly could.

And Leah, knowing always that she was in second place, desired even more to become a mother. We see in all her prayers – “Maybe this time my husband will join me” (29:34). She wanted to join the great talmid chochom. It’s a great pity to hear those words of Leah. “Hashem has seen my humiliation; maybe now my husband will love me” (ibid. 32). “Hashem has heard that I am unloved” (ibid. 33). My heart aches when I read Leah’s words. Again and again this great woman expressed her heartache to Hashem. She poured out her heart in tefillah.

Now, it doesn’t mean that Rochel didn’t, but Leah davened even more. And the reason for that is because she suffered more. Because of that she wept and prayed and strived to be better; she was always thinking, “My husband is a navi and I want to build the Am Yisroel with him.”

The Wise Approach To Encumbrance

And that’s the important principle you’re hearing now. When a person is under a certain encumbrance, so if he or she is wise, that person will try to compensate. And that’s exactly what Leah did. She didn’t sulk and complain about her status in the house – instead she made use of it to grow even greater. It’s not merely the fact that Leah suffered so much that caused her to become the mother of the Am Yisroel. It was how she reacted to her suffering!

Because of her status as the less favored wife, she compensated in other ways. I couldn’t tell you all the details of how she did that but there’s no question that Leah, as a result of her handicap in that house, strove more than Rochel to be an ideal wife and an ideal mother. Of course she davened very much to find favor in Yaakov’s eyes and for children too, but she also exerted herself in her behavior, in how she spoke to Yaakov, even in how she cooked and fulfilled all of her household duties.

To make up for her lack of status in the household, Leah exerted herself to a much greater extent than Rochel did. I’m sure that both of these great women strove to attain perfection in character. That’s what all the Avos and all the Imahos did constantly. Like the Rambam says, they felt that they were standing before Hakadosh Baruch Hu twenty four hours a day. But Leah was standing before Hakadosh Baruch Hu more than twenty four hours a day – she went beyond her limits and tried to make up for her encumbrance and to excel. She strove with all her might to be the very best person that she could be.

And that’s why Hakadosh Baruch Hu rewarded her, because actually she attained a bigger perfection than Rochel. Now this doesn’t mean that Rochel wasn’t better; Rochel started out being better and in a certain sense she was always better — that’s why she was chosen. But because Leah wasn’t chosen, she therefore struggled mightily to become better and better and Hakodosh Boruch Hu helped her in her effort to achieve and she became more and more perfect.