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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Parashat Devarim: Terror and The West

 From the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles:

Terror and the West
By Rabbi Yehuda M. Hausman
Parashat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

And the Lord God said to the Serpent: Because you did this, cursed be you of all the cattle and all the beasts of the field. On your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life. Enmity will I set between you and the woman, between your seed and hers. He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel (Genesis 3:14-15).

The Lord does not bother to interrogate the Serpent. With man and woman, there are motives to divulge, designs to ferret out: "Where are you?" "What have you done?" "Did you eat from the tree?"

When shamed, man will cloak himself in fig leaves and hide behind hydrangeas. Such is the crooked timber of humanity, one must peel away each subterfuge, strip back each layer of evasion to get at the truth. A snake, on the other hand, just watch and wait, it will always shed its skin.

Allegorically, the Serpent is humanity's penchant for evil. Of it, what is there to ascertain? As surely as a stomach lusts for food, evil craves man's heart. It can make no excuses. It exists for its own sake. Even diminished — without legs, claws or cleverness — it still crouches at the door, poisoned fangs ready to strike. "Its desire is for you," so Cain is warned. Once unleashed, its venom marks him forever.

Even still, we wish to hide from it. "My punishment is too great to bear," Cain cries out. Better to flee, to become “a nomad and a wanderer” than to face the evil in our midst. (Genesis 4:13-14)

This Shabbat, amidst a war in Israel and relentless turmoil around the globe, we begin Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah. After 40 years of rootless travel, the Children of Israel are on the cusp of a long sought dream. Yet as Israel looks expectantly toward its future conquest in the West, the gaze of Moses is locked firmly on the past. His opening words contain no claim of triumph or call to arms, rather Moses’ recollection of history is littered with Israel’s many failures … “your trouble, your burden, your disputing” (Deuteronomy 1:12).

Alongside battles won and lost, recountings of journeys and encampments, Moses does not obviate from mentioning Israel’s grumblings and complaints. He persistently refers to how Israel “rebelled against the word of God” (Deuteronomy 1:43). Of Moses, we are later told that even on his dying day “his eye did not dim nor was his energy spent” (Deuteronomy 34:7). Moses was of unclouded sight and unwavering conviction.

This past year or so, the West has fallen to an awful nadir. Our sight has dimmed, our strength has seemingly depleted. We stare into the Serpent's clouded eyes, and instead of crushing its head, we turn heel in fear of its bite.

Not too long ago, Syria’s Assad was on the verge of collapse; a few more rifles and a few aerial attacks and his regime would have folded. Instead his militias were given respite while we averted our eyes from the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands.

We were relieved to finally leave Iraq, and have since watched (or not) the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rise up and massacre Shiites, Christians, and Kurds.

Ongoing sanctions of Iran may as well be pardons for the all difference they make. We seem destined to follow a similar course with Russia. What might Putin do next if Europe does not have the nerve to act? We speak much, do little and look elsewhere at first opportunity.
  
Observing Israel these terrible last few weeks, it is plain that Israel has been remiss for quite some time. As we hid behind our Iron Dome, our F-16s and drones, a warren of evil entrenched itself under Gaza, its tentacles burrowing deeper and deeper into the Holy Land.  Unbeknownst to us, a den of vipers became a kingdom of cobras.

Is it too much to assume that if we had watched better, understood what simmered beneath, acted sooner, fewer soldiers would return home draped in Israeli flags? Could it be said that more vigilance might have prevented much of the death and decimation we are forced to witness each day?

Next week we observe the 9th of Av, in memorium of our two fallen Temples, and the many tragedies that have befallen Israel at the hands of our enemies. On this day, we do not avert our gaze from the past, but look on it truly.

“Inquire, pray, of past days, which were before you,” Moses instructs us. (Deuteronomy 4:32) Learn from the past, or be doomed to repeat it.

“The wicked flee when none pursueth,” so goes the proverb. There is a profound lesson the world needs to learn from Hamas: ‘Flee the serpent, and it will follow.’ 

Rabbi Yehuda M. Hausman is the spiritual leader of the The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Parashat Shemini: The God of Winter

James Tissot: The Dead Bodies Carried Away (c. 1896-1902)

Parashat Shemini: The God of Winter
Rabbi Yehuda Hausman

A winter’s sun can give off much light but little warmth. The day may be radiant with bright snow and brilliant sky, but still we plod along with our shoulders pinched, teeth clenched, gloved hands buried deep in our pockets. Holiness can often feel like the sun in December, akin a menorah, we seem not meant to benefit but to ache for its light and, more so, its heat.

It is evident from this week’s Torah portion that Nadav and Avihu must have pined for holiness. It was not enough that they were priests and thus they ranked among the elders of Israel (Lev. 9.1). It did not suffice that they assisted their father, Aaron the High Priest, on the sacred day of the Tabernacle’s inauguration. From the beginning of the Torah portion, we are told pointedly and repeatedly of their full participation on that auspicious day. ‘They brought the blood… and delivered to Aaron the burnt offering...’ (Lev. 9.1,8-20). Still they yearned to draw closer. So the sons of Aaron, “took each his censer, and placed in them fire and laid incense upon it; and they brought-near alien fire before the Lord” (Lev. 10.1).

What happens next is strange on many counts. “And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and consumed them, so they died before the Lord” (10.2) It is not clear if this fire comes down from heaven, or emerges from the Holy of Holies. What is clear is that this second fire differs drastically from the first fire mentioned just a few verses above: “A fire went out from before the Lord to consume upon the altar the burnt-offering and fats” (9.24). This first flame contained heat, so much heat, that the day’s offerings, which had been roasting slowly on the altar’s normal flames, were consumed in an instant (R. Dovid Tzvi Hoffman).

In contrast, the flames that consume Aaron’s sons contain no heat. Each soul is devoured but it is a fire that leaves flesh and garments intact. Moses instructs two Levite cousins to remove the bodies from the Sanctuary, “So they drew near, and carried them by their tunics out of the camp” (10:5). There is no singed garments or seared skin. (See Rashi.) The tragic turn of events drips with irony. Aaron’s sons sought unsanctioned fire to “warm” themselves; measure-for-measure, the fire that took them was devoid of any heat.

If we consider the nature of holiness in the Torah, it consistently suggests hierarchy and degradations, the further away we stand the less intense the flame. God descends to Mt. Sinai in fire (Ex. 19.18). Someway down the mountain, Moses stands between God and the Elders, the Elders, in turn, stand between Moses and Israel, and the camp of Israel forms a boundary between the Mountain and mankind. The Sanctuary is no different. There is a courtyard around God’s dwelling place. The Levites encircle the courtyard and Tent of Meeting. The Israelite camp forms a ring around the Levites, and around Israel, there dwells the great mass of humanity. In our day, we think of the hierarchy as ‘Temple, Jerusalem, Promised Land, and Diaspora.’ But even the animal kingdom is divvied up in Leviticus. All of humanity can enjoy every kind of fish or fowl, critter or quadruped. But judging by the list rendered at the end of Parashat Shemini, only a tenth of those can be eaten by Israel, and of that tenth only a small portion is rendered fit as a sacrifice before the Lord. Clearly, proximity would mean a great deal, as God’s aura emanates from a central place. But before we conclude thus, consider Nadav and Avihu, who even before the presence of the Lord felt a sort of chill.

Such may be the strange fire of Godliness, near yet apart; the bush burns but does not burn; once, Israel experienced a fire upon the mountain, but the mountain was not ablaze. Long ago, there was an eight-day miracle, the wicks drew oil, formed teardrop flames, hour-upon-hour passed, but the wicks were not consumed.

If one message may be derived from our studies, perhaps it is this. We can only prepare ourselves for holiness, akin the Israelites who cleansed themselves, in body and spirit, before Revelation; or through careful ritual, as the priests and people performed before the Sanctuary’s Inauguration. In the meanwhile, till that bright light suddenly erupts in warmth, there is only the longing, as winter waits for spring.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Parshat Vayakhel: The Spirit of Industry

 James Tissot: Building the Ark 
[Yes Noah's.]


Parashat Vayakhel: The Spirit of Industry
Rabbi Yehuda Hausman

Has it just vanished in smoke: l’esprit du temps? Several thousand years is a vast patch of history, perhaps in the interim, the novelty of a desert Sanctuary has simply seeped away. All its glory and wondrous color faded and stonewashed like an old beach-towel; its imminence lost on us, far more, in fact, than last week’s paper left to yellow in the sun. The Sanctuary’s time is not our time or our great-grandparents’ time. What chance is there that this Sanctuary can stir our hearts as in days of old?  
Admittedly, the descriptions are pleasant enough:  A portable gilded ark, crowned with cherubs; embroidered winged-sphinxes sewn into expensive curtains made of fine goat hair, perhaps a variety of Mohair or Cashmere, if we think on it. There are silver loops and clasps connecting this and that; an indoor altar and an outdoor altar; a golden candelabrum, and a great deal more.
But no amount of familiarity with the text seems to alter its foreignness. Imagine having to describe a spirited summer in Paris to someone who has never sat in a Café, or seen the inside of an art gallery, or fallen in love. The Louvre is nothing but a U-shaped palace, the Seine just another river; the scope of l’Arc de triomphe never quite translates if one has never spent ten minutes walking around its wide roundabout. Thankfully, the Torah has a way of easing us into the unfamiliar, even when most paths are shut; there is always another point of entrée.
One of the stranger aspects of the Tabernacle is that transmission of its many details is twice juxtaposed with the law of Shabbat. The initial five and-a-half chapters of Tabernacle blueprints culminate in a reminder to ‘guard the Sabbath by refraining from prohibited labor—malacha’ (Ex. 25.1—31.12-17).   
Additionally, when the time comes for actual construction, this later section is introduced with yet another mention of Shabbat: ‘For six days shall labor be done, but on the seventh day, there shall be for you holiness, a Sabbath of solemn-rest to the Lord […] You shall kindle no fire throughout all your habitations on the Sabbath Day’ (Ex. 35.2-3).
               Our Sages find in the strange proximity of these two subjects a stern warning. ‘Despite God’s command, construction of the Sanctuary was to cease on the Sabbath.’ (Rashi, Sforno) Why, some might ask? Is it not all for God? Later in the Torah Portion, we read that the people have made and donated far more material than was necessary for the building of the Sanctuary. So much so that Moses announces: “‘Let neither man nor woman make any more work for the sanctuary.’ So the people were restrained from giving” (Ex. 36.6). The exuberance of ancient Israel captures humanity’s boundless desire to fashion and make. Creation never quite ends on its own, for things can always be made better…grander…different. Then there is the danger that mindful work evolves into mindless productivity. The philosopher Raoul Vaneigem had this to say, “In an industrial society which confuses work and productivity, the necessity of producing has always been an enemy of the desire to create.”  
Without Moses cry of ‘enough,’ what compels to pause from projects great and small alike, if not mandatory Sabbath? Strikingly, what is odd about the Sanctuary and the Sabbath is that they are both holy, yet they do no quite mix. Like two great magnets of the same polarity, holiness of rest and holiness of work, though infused with a sacred charge, nevertheless push one another away. The Sabbath prevents the Sanctuary from being refurbished each month, from being ever remodeled and expanded each year.
The old awe of the Sanctuary may not be felt as it ought to be, especially when the average home is a great deal bigger than the Tent of Meeting. But we know the satisfaction of successful human labor, whether it’s a simple well-made soup or seeing a skyscraper rise up and kiss the clouds. We can also appreciate the dangers of overwork, one-mindedness, Napoleonic obsession, where no palace is large enough, no monument tall enough.
It is something of interest that of the many labors needed to create the Tabernacle, only the making fire is explicitly mentioned in the beginning of Parashat Vayekhel: ‘You shall kindle no fire…on the Sabbath Day.’ Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno suggests that fire is so basic to human industry, that a great many other labors could not be performed without it. But I prefer to end with a line by the poet Theodore Roethke:

What lives again? Only a man of straw—
Yet straw can feed a fire to melt down stone.

Fire can forge temples and cities or usher in the Sabbath with its light, but if man’s industry is left to burn unchecked, it can turn a Tabernacle into a spectacle, the Sabbath into just another day of work, and even melt the stone Tablets that reside in the Ark of the Covenant.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Parashat Ki Tisa: The Covenant of the Calf


William de Brailes: The Israelites Worship the Golden Calf and Moses Breaks the Tablets (C. 1250)


By Rabbi Yehuda Hausman

If the word of God, in stone engraved, can crumble as easily as bread; if God’s voice, chiseled in rock, can shatter like a pitched dinner plate; if the children of Israel can cast off their heavenly covenant with a casualness not unlike the unclasping of an earring or a necklace; if it is all so easily dismissed, what chance is there for loyalty and faith, when weighed against the allure of a pot of gold, or the lustrous aura of a gilded calf?

The narrative of the molten calf is unique on account of its plethora of vivid images. Moses and God, high upon the mountain, are engaged in august discourse, while far below, the restless people, dance their way from anxiety to frivolity, from fear to wretched faithlessness. Somehow, Aaron becomes a harassed sort-of baby-sitter, longing for the sound of an engine in the driveway, his ear tilted in the hope of the sound of jingling keys outside the door, all while the children run amuck.  

First they want gods to lead them. Perhaps, Aaron wonders, they will settle for a single graven calf. The people desire sacrifices; perhaps the ‘construction of an altar’ will provide some delay.  They wish for merriment, so Aaron declares a night vigil, a final interlude for the people to reconsider or Moses to return and intercede: ‘Tomorrow, a feast to the Lord,” he says (Exodus 32:1-6).  We know what ensues.

However there is no image more vivid than Moses’ reaction as he spies his people making sport of all that he holds dear: “And it was when he neared the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned, he threw the tablets from his hands and smashed them beneath the mountain” (Exodus 32:19).

We have journeyed with Moses, our teacher, as he led Israel from slavery to freedom, from the dry-bed of the Red Sea to the sloping mount of Revelation. His defeat now is palpable. There is wrath in his eyes, rage on his face. It is as if he has found some stranger in bed with his spouse. What use are words when the pain is physical? The covenant has already been smashed to pieces.

But quite possibly, wittingly or otherwise, Moses conveyed in rage what could not be conveyed in thunder and lightening, in the great columns of smoke and flame that accompanied the giving of the Ten Commandments. Perhaps what was missing in the fireworks was an essential lesson about the meaning of loyalty. In the moment when Moses’ anger mirrored God’s anger, the children of Israel began to see the thunder anew. Partnerships, covenants, trust … they flow both ways. The voice of God could only be engraved on stone, but it is the image of Moses’ burning rage that gets chiseled in Israel’s heart.  

The verse that follows compounds the lesson: Moses took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to fine-powder, scattered it over the water and made the Israelites drink it (Exodus 32:20).

Moses appears to want Israel to “taste” what it has done. His people must ingest the concoction and savor its distastefulness. In this way, they may come to appreciate the foulness of the whole affair. Many commentators wonder: From what source was this water drawn? Some, including Torah translator and interpreter Robert Alter, suggest this was the water that Moses “miraculously provided for the people, which would be a compounding of irony.”

In a different vein, the 12th Century rabbi, Abraham ibn Ezra, points to Deuteronomy 9:21 where Moses states that he took the grounded dust of the calf and flung it into “the stream that came down from the mountain.” This was hardly any old wadi, it was the very stream that swept down from Sinai and sustained the camp.

Faithfulness has little meaning without some awareness of the repercussions of faithlessness. How disloyalty dissolves the bond of trust, how it pollutes the waters of love — human and divine. Faith is no paltry thing, because the memory of broken faith endures forever. Stone tablets shatter, and God’s voice is lost in the wind; perhaps more than anything else, it was the Golden Calf that sealed the covenant.


Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of the The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Parashat Bo: The Moment Before the Moment



James Tissot: Pharaoh and His Dead Son


Parashat Bo: The Moment Before the Moment
Rabbi Yehuda Hausman
 
When was the last time you felt the power of God so strongly you floated upon the rising tide like Moses in his cradle?” (From the novel Freddy and Fredericka” by Mark Helprin.)

There was a moment, just before the moment, when the tide of Jewish history finally surged.  God commanded Moses, “‘Take the staff which turned into a serpent, and go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he goes out to the River. Station yourself before him on the Nile’s bank…and say thus to him: ‘With this staff, I shall strike the water of the Nile, and it shall turn to blood’” (Ex. 7.14-17).

That was the moment before the change…. For after that morning, no longer would Israelite infants be cast into the River, no longer would the current wash away the blood of infanticide and cleanse the executioner’s hand in its muddy depths. Egypt would drink her sins, and drink more. “Ver trinken sie abends ver trinken sie nacht
(Paul Celan, Deathfugue).

The first plague of blood abated and the second plague of frog passed, but a stench of rotting fish and frog remained, the rancor of guilt settled on the land. (Ex. 7.21; 8.10) With the odor came the plagues of lice and flies, latching to the flesh of human and beast, like the mark of Cain: ‘this was the finger of God’, said Egypt’s magicians (Ex. 8.15). Soon came the pestilence and then the boils. ‘Moses drew a handful of soot out of the furnaces [of oppression]’—where Israel had long fired mortar and baked bricks—and cast it windward, whereupon the ashes fell upon all those who struck with the mallet and attacked with the whip. (Ex.  9.8) Israel rose steadily, Egypt ebbed away.

But if we may return to that slice of frozen time before the commencement of judgment.… Moses stationed upon the River as his sister had once stationed herself upon the River. Miriam must have stood rigid with worry, while years later, Moses must have felt wonderment at his fate. Here, a certain royal princess cast forth her hand and rescued a slave-child with her embrace. Could this Pharaoh stretch forth his hand, to save his people, at the least?

In Pharaoh’s stubbornness, we forget that Moses’s heart could be no less stubborn. Five times he rebuts God by the burning bush. He is hardly one to voice ready agreement. “I am stiff of tongue and stiff of speech,” he states, “I am a man of uncircumcised lips.” Moses needs signs and wonders: a miraculous staff…an unconsumed bush. He wants to know God’s name.  Moses keeps insisting, ‘send another,’ “who am I to take Israel out of Egypt?”  Even in agreement, he sets out half-heartedly: Moses puts his family on a donkey, while he ambles afoot by their side.  (Ex. Chs. 3-4)

Pharaoh seems much the same. He wants to know the Lord’s name: “Who is this Hebrew God that I should listen to his voice?” (Ex 5.2). He is no less blunt: “Why should I send them forth?” Pharaoh asks for signs, but he is similarly unimpressed by wonders (7:9-13). After each of the first five plagues, we are told that Pharaoh “stiffened his heart.” Even when he relents in the aftermath of disaster, we know his acquiescence is less than whole-hearted.

It is of interest that Moses’ resistance finally wanes while en-route to Egypt. Along the way, a mysterious divine threat “seeks to kill him.” Just who exactly or why, the Torah does not say. But disaster is averted only when Tziporah, Moses’ quick-thinking wife, circumcises their firstborn son. “Tell Pharaoh Israel is my firstborn,” God instructs Moses before he sets out (4.22). It is as if God’s concern for a firstborn son must be mirrored by Moses’ anxiety for losing a child. “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and no longer be stubborn.” (Deut. 10.16) It is sympathy that loosens a stiff upper lip and warms a frigid heart. And though, after the Plague of the Firstborn Pharaoh and Egypt set Israel free; it is a broken will, not a broken heart, which cause the floodgates to open.
  
To sound a final note, there is an aspect of the plagues that is often neglected.  With remarkable consistency, almost every plague is preceded by an invitation. “Go to Pharaoh.” “Stand before Pharaoh.” “Come before Pharaoh, ” as this week’s portion begins. The invitation seems trivial compared to the plagues that follow. But the anticipation of what is to come is no less divine than the miracle itself. To end oppression one must first learn to personalize its horror, as Moses does on his journey back to Egypt, a lesson Pharaoh refuses to learn. To seek redemption, there must be first an inkling of what it means to be free.  The eating of the Paschal Lamb, the Sparing of the Hebrew Firstborn, these things precede the Splitting of the Sea and the Resurrection of a People. It is always the moment before the moment where we find God speaking to Moses and beckoning to us.  

We know Pharaoh’s daughter stretched forth her hand, but not before God lifted the tide.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Parashat Vayigash: Near and Far in Goshen




James Tissot - Joseph Presents his Brothers to Pharaoh

Vayiggash is perhaps best translated as to "come-closer." The verb is most often used in the Torah to depict a lessening of physical distance between one party and another. But it can have a psychic component as well, signaling imminent rapport and rapprochement, or its opposite - the possibility of failure - and thusly all the heightened tension that comes with drawing too near.

Our Torah portion begins with Judah's plea for Benjamin's freedom. His soliloquy attempts to bridge the vast misunderstanding between the brothers and the powerful viceroy of Egypt. "Now Judah came-closer to him and said..." (Genesis 45.18) We know Judah's words melt the iron mail around Joseph's heart, they pierce his shell of outer indifference till the dam finally cracks and tears flow forth. But what comes afterward? Even after Joseph reveals himself - "I am Joseph, is my father still alive?" - there remains a gulf: "They could not answer him, for they were confounded." Joseph pleads: "Pray come-close to me - Geshu Na." But Joseph still senses hesitation for he launches into a soliloquy of his own. "Do not be pained, do not be angry with yourselves for having sold me here...."

For some hurts, even the most earnest of apologies, even the most wholesome of pardons may not mend a fabric so severely torn. If we recall, for example, Jacob may have reconciled with Esau, but he could never live in harmony with him. 'Jacob bowed seven times until he came-close to Esau.... The maidservants and their children came-close.... Leah and her children came-close. Rachel and Joseph came-close." But once it was over there was separation. Esau and his camp journeyed southeast toward Seir, and Jacob traveled west to Canaan. (Genesis 33) Would the same hold true for Joseph and his brothers? Would they know reconciliation and civility but never anything more?

Perhaps the thought occurred to Joseph. Amidst his speech, he says to his brothers, "Hasten to my father and say to him: Thus says your son, Joseph: God has made me lord of all Egypt, come down to me...and you shall stay in the region of Goshen, which is near me." (45.10)

The region of Goshen is remarkable on several accounts. On the lower Nile, the northeastern delta provides good pasture for flocks. Moreover, it is geographically closer to Canaan than Upper Egypt, all around, a generally sensible move for a family of shepherds who would continue to think of Canaan as their homeland. But the invitation is also remarkable for what it is not. Quite strikingly, it is not a request that Jacob and his family come reside in Joseph's palace(s), be it in Heliopolis, Ramses, or anywhere else in the center of the country. Goshen was a significant part and parcel of Egypt, but it was also some distance away. "And Joseph made ready his chariot, and he went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen." (46.28-9)This was no quick walk up the street.

Yet perhaps in this there is a lesson. The expression 'to Goshen' in Hebrew is a contraction of Gesha Na - "Pray, come-close." More than anything Joseph wants his family near. "T'is my brothers, I seek," he once remarked to a total stranger. But often, to satisfy a desire for psychological closeness requires a measure of physical or even temporal distance. What Goshen then becomes is a needed stretch in space and time, a middle ground, if you will, not quite the culture of Canaan, and nothing like Egyptian aristocracy. Goshen becomes that place where Jacob and his sons will journey toward and sojourn in, and serves as a mecca where Joseph can make his visits. But in the time between these visits, and in the physical distance between palace and prairie, there remained for Joseph and his brothers a space to contemplate failure, fortune and forgiveness. To come any closer, it would seem, they needed a place both near and far.

Shabbat shalom.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Parashat Vayetze: Victory for the Vulnerable?


Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah (on Right) - Dante G. Rossetti

And Leah’s eyes were tender, but Rachel was fair in form and fair to look at, and Jacob loved Rachel” (Genesis 29:17).

There was something about Leah’s eyes. Some commentators thought them possessed of an elegant beauty, others a misty attractiveness, or most peculiarly, that they were easily given to tears. “She thought her fate was to marry Esau,” Rashi writes. Unmistakably, it was not waiting for her absent suitor, but the choice of suitor, that caused Leah to “weep.”

Sultry or sorrowful, beside a beauty like Rachel, the Torah’s description smacks of unkindness. “Rachel was gorgeous, but her sister Leah had nice eyes,” is hardly an appropriate introduction for a foremother of the Jewish people, or anyone really. Of all the things to say about a person, why even mention this detail?   

Oddly, the least generous translation reads the verse not as a depiction of Leah’s eyes but rather as a description of Leah’s power of sight. “And Leah’s eyes were weak (rachot),” is the literal meaning according to Rabbi Abraham Ibn-Ezra, as in “weak children” (yeladim rachim) or the “weak of heart” (rach leivav). It is not how Leah looked, but how she saw, that preoccupies the Torah. And now the story falls into place.

Jacob, who fooled his “dim-eyed” father Isaac — who in darkness could not discern one brother from the other — is now fooled in turn via the “dim-eyed” sister of Rachel. “In the evening, Lavan took Leah his daughter and brought her to him. … But in the morning, behold, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Lavan: ‘What is this that you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I labored with you? Why have you deceived me?’ ” (Genesis 29:23-25).

Admittedly, there is much tragedy in the story. In his love for Rachel, Jacob labored seven years for her hand, while Lavan, who cared only to exploit Jacob’s love, contrives on their wedding night a scheme to have Jacob work another seven years. For Leah, what may we say? What is it to be loved, finally and only, because your father has schemed his schemes, and your husband believes you to be another? The closer Leah looks at her thieving father, or her beautiful sister, or Rachel’s husband-to-be, the less she wants to see. “And Leah’s eyes were weak.”

Yet there is a remarkable moral in this story. In the usual run of things, the mighty are victors and the weak their victims. But here (for once) the opposite occurs. In the Midrash, Jacob scolds Leah: “‘Why did you deceive me, daughter of a deceiver? Did I not call Rachel in the night, and you answered me!’ …. Leah said, ‘Even a (bad) barber has his disciples. Did your father not cry out Esau, and you answered him!’ ”

In this, there is a small victory for the vulnerable, and a great lesson for those who take advantage of the weak: If you exploit those who may not be blessed with the best of sight or the best of health, if you abuse those with a less discerning mind or who lack the security of wealth, beware, lest one day, deprived of light, you too receive your due. Isaac’s eyes were dim and those of Leah weak, but “the eyes of the Lord God are upon the Land, always” (Deuteronomy 11:12).