In the new season of The Crown, we learn about the tension between the future Queen Elizabeth and her sister, Princess Margaret, when Elizabeth is told that she is the next heir to the British throne. Margaret, the more charismatic and popular of the two sisters, thinks she is much better suited for the job. When she tries to make this argument to the powers that be, she is told: “The order of succession to the Throne is determined by the Act of Settlement of 1701, not the wild and irresponsible whims of young princesses. Princess Elizabeth’s destiny is to accede the Throne. Yours is to serve and support…We all have a role to play. Princess Elizabeth’s will be center-stage, and yours, ma’am, will be from the wings.”
This modern drama between the Elizabeth and Margaret is similar to the ancient one we find in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetezei. It tells us:
“Lavan had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful. And Jacob loved Rachel.”
In his book Self, Struggle and Change, Rabbi Norman Cohen points out the fact that Rachel is described not as the younger sister, but as k’tanah, the smaller one. What she possesses in beauty, she lacks in gratitude and wisdom.
Leah has both internal wisdom and fullness – she is g’dolah, the greater of the two. But we do know that something in her external appearance is missing when compared with Rachel. Rachel wins affection from her husband; Leah hungers it.
One sister desires external traits, the other seeks to cultivate inner ones. But what unites them in these stories is the paths they take to attain what they lack: bearing Jacob’s children. They each believe that giving birth to Jacob’s children will fulfill those opposite desires. Leah believes that her children will help Jacob see her worth and finally give her the attention and affection that she desires. Rachel believes that her children will fill an inner longing for which her beauty and the complete devotion of her husband cannot substitute.
When Leah names her first son Reuven, she says “God has seen my affliction” and “Now my husband will love me.” Her second and third sons are also named to express Leah’s search for affection. Shimon means “This is because God has heard — Sh’ma — that I was unloved and has given me this one also.” And Levi means “This time my husband will become attached to me — Yeilaveini — for I have borne him three sons.” And yet, Leah never wins the affection of her husband, despite the children she has given him.
Rachel sees her sister’s children and says to Jacob: “Give me children, or I shall die.” And when Rachel does finally give birth to a child of her own, she immediately requests another. She names him Joseph, which means “May God add another son for me.”
Neither sister achieves her goals using her children as the means. Leah’s sons do not incline Jacob to see her as an object of his desire, and although Rachel’s womb has been opened, her heart is still barren and unsatisfied; she gets a son, and her first instinct is to request for another.
Leah makes peace with her fate. By the time she has a fourth child, she no longer asks for Yaakov’s affection. Instead, she praises God by naming her son Yehudah and claiming: “This time, I will praise God.” After Leah accepts her lot in life, she conceives again. She becomes the matriarch who produces six of the twelve tribes of Israel, and the mother of the tribe of Judah, from which King David will come.
Rachel, on the other hand, continues to see her existence as a challenge. Later in the Torah, she gives birth to another son and names him Ben Oni, which means “son of my struggle.” When she dies shortly after giving birth to him, she is buried on the way to Bethlehem.
Leah’s strength and beauty is internal. She does not get the affection of her husband, but she praises God and appreciates what she does have, even when she does not necessarily get all she seeks. Her faith is stronger than that of Rachel, who always wants more and never acknowledges God’s role in her life.
Leah is the weak sister who is actually strong, the unloved sister who is actually satisfied. Hers is a story of acceptance of her fate and her circumstances.
It’s hard to be in second-place. But just like Elizabeth and Margaret each have their strengths, so do Rachel and Leah, and so do we all. Both Leah and Margaret realize that they can wield power, exert influence, and provide wisdom from the wings. It’s all a matter of the perspective they choose.