The Comfort of a Forgotten Poem
Jacob’s life with his beloved Rachel is cut painfully short by her death in childbirth. After a long absence and before he has a chance to build a permanent home in the land promised by God, he loses the treasure acquired abroad. It was a relationship marked by love and adversity. Seeing Rachel for the first time at the well in Haran filled Jacob with the strength to remove unaided its heavy stone covering (Genesis 29:10-11). The intensity of his affection is conveyed by the fact that Jacob worked for Laban, his father-in-law, for fourteen years to win the right to marry her. And his resolve is undiminished by the fraud committed by Laban, which saddles Jacob with Leah, Rachel’s older sister, as his first, unsought-for wife. Rachel is the more comely of the two, and the Torah tells us unabashedly that Jacob “loved Rachel more than Leah (Genesis 29:30).”
The brief account of Rachel’s untimely death reaffirms their special relationship. Despite the fact that Leah gave birth to six of Jacob’s sons and his one recorded daughter, Dinah, and that her maid Zilpah bore him two additional sons, the Torah never bothers to inform us of Leah’s death. Indeed, the Torah passes over in silence the death of Rebecca, Jacob’s mother, who, more than Isaac, ensured that birthright and divine favor would pass through Jacob and not his older brother Esau. Hence the mention of Rachel’s death is noteworthy, and although the Torah avoids expatiating on Jacob’s grief, it does add the unusual detail that Jacob adorned her gravesite with a pillar (Genesis 35:16-20). (I have no good explanation for the unexpected and incidental recording of the death of Rebecca’s nurse, Deborah [Genesis 35:8], but then neither do the midrash and the commentators).
Moreover, we may surmise the impact of Rachel’s loss on Jacob by the fact that he revisits the tragedy many years later as he nears his own end. Before adopting Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, in Egypt, he reminds Joseph that “when I was returning from Paddan, Rachel [his mother, we might add] died, to my sorrow (Genesis 48:7),” upon which the Talmud insightfully comments that the death of a wife is felt most keenly and lastingly by her husband (B.T. Sanhedrin 22b).
Though preferred then, Rachel is less than half as prolific as her older sister. Of Jacob’s twelve sons, Rachel and her maid, Bilhah, give birth to only four, with Joseph and Benjamin coming from Rachel. But Leah’s fecundity does not win her Jacob’s affection, and her sons would soon act out her resentment and their own. However, in contrast to the lack of sympathy toward her in the biblical text, the midrash relates to Leah with a measure of compassion. Unlike its consistently harsh treatment of Esau, out of all proportion to what is warranted by the portrait of him in the Torah, the midrash identifies with Leah’s predicament because it is not of her own making.
Accordingly, the midrash unpacks the following terse sentence: “The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren (Genesis 29:31).” What the midrash detects here is a causal relationship. Precisely because Leah failed to find any favor in the eyes of Jacob, God came to her defense. The sequence of events implies divine orchestration. Through an abundance of children, God enhanced Leah’s value and status. Rachel might enjoy a firm grasp on Jacob’s love, but she could not guarantee the future of his household with progeny (Torah Shlemah, vol. 5, pp. 1176-7). God lines up with the underdog.
What is still somewhat muted in the midrash is artfully crafted into an unrestrained and poignant plea for God’s love for recitation in the synagogue by the sixth century Palestinian poet Yannai. One of the earliest of a remarkable cluster of Hebrew poets who turned the ingenuity of midrash into the artistry of liturgical poetry, Yannai was unearthed only in our century from the treasure-trove of the Cairo Geniza discovered by Solomon Schechter in 1897. In 1938 in Germany, in a pathbreaking scholarly book of unknown Yannai poetry, Menahem Zulay published the Hebrew original of the following poem based on our midrash:
Our eyes are weak [like Leah’s]
with longing for Your love, O loving One,
for we are hated by the enemy.
Look how afflicted we are from within; see how hated we are from without –
as You looked on the affliction of Leah and saw her tormented by hate.
She was hated within the house and detested without.
But not every loved one is loved, nor every hated one hated:
There are some who are hated below, yet beloved above.
Those whom You hate are hated; those whom You love are loved.
We are hated because we love You, O Holy One!
(T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, p. 215)
In a daring tour de force, Yannai appropriates the spurned figure of Leah as emblematic of the fate of the Jewish people in an age when Christianity seemed firmly ensconced in Rome and Byzantium. As depicted by the midrash, Leah can serve to bridge the chasm between faith and history, a sense of chosenness and the bitter taste of perpetual insecurity. Perhaps God might once again be aroused to rescue the maligned and abused. Israel could take consolation that worldly success does not necessarily accord with divine favor, the ultimate barometer of human worth. Often those despised below are cherished above. Sadly, Israel’s love of God earns its universal condemnation, offset only by the comforting memory of Leah.
A few months after the appearance of Zulay’s book, Moritz Spitzer reprinted Yannai’s poem with a German translation in what was to be the final number of the widely distributed pocket Almanac of the Schocken Publishing Company for the year 5699 (1938-39). As such, it became yet another weapon in the spiritual arsenal of a Jewish community on the brink of destruction. Never had Jews been hated more maniacally; never had the enduring power of Yannai’s faith and imagination been more desperately needed. In dark times, Leah stepped forth in midrashic garb to offer a morsel of religious comfort.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,