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Rachel and Leah represent two aspects of divine sustenance.

Worlds and Wives

Worlds and Wives

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Worlds and Wives
Rachel and Leah represent two aspects of divine sustenance.

And Laban had two daughters…." (Gen. 29:16)

The Zohar, commenting on the verse, "Who is this that looks forth as the morning…"(Songs 6:10) makes the following statement: The words "who" (in Hebrew, "mee") and "this" (in Hebrew, "zote") denote two worlds. "Who" symbolizes the most supernal sphere, the unknowable beginning of all things. "This", is a lower sphere, the so-called "lower world"….(Zohar, Terumah, 126b and 127a)

Jacob, "the complete one," united the two worlds as one. He united them above, and he united them below, and from him issued the twelve holy tribes after the supernal pattern. Jacob, who was "a man of completeness," (Gen. 25:27) brought harmony to the two worlds. Other and lesser men, who follow Jacob's example merely uncover nakedness both above and below…as it is written, "You shall not marry a woman and her sister…." (Lev. 18:18)

Jacob's two wives, Leah and Rachel, are embodiments of two worlds: "the unknowable" world of thought, and the "lower world," the world of speech. Leah embodies the world of thought, the hidden world, known as Alma di'itkasya. Rachel embodies the world of speech, the revealed world, known as Alma di'itgalya. Leah…gives birth to seven children, six boys and one girl, just as bina gives birth to the seven emotions…

[Similarly, Rabbi Chaim Vital writes that the generation of the Exodus stem from the world of thought. They therefore did not wish to enter the land of Israel, the world of speech, but rather wished to live in the desert where they lived a spiritual existence and experienced Torah and mitzvot in the realm of thought alone.]

Leah is "the older one", in Hebrew "ha'gedola". This can also be read as "hei gedola", "the great [letter] hei," referring to the first hei of G‑d's Name, which embodies bina. Rachel is "the younger one", in Hebrew "ha'ktanah ", which can be read as "hei k'tana", "the small hei", referring to the second hei of G‑d's Name, which embodies malchut, the lowest sefira. In man's service to his Creator, Leah corresponds to the study of Torah, which must be understood with one's bina, and Rachel to the mitzvot that are accomplished through speech and action. (Sefer Hamamarim Melukat, 1:211)

[Leah therefore gives birth to seven children, six boys and one girl, just as bina gives birth to the seven emotions - six masculine - chesed through yesod, and one feminine - malchut. (Ohr Hatorah, Vayishlach 250a)]

The difference between Rachel and Leah is seen in their children as well. Leah's children were shepherds. They lived in the world of thought, apart from society and the mundane world. Rachel's child, Joseph, lived within the world. He remained a tzadik even in the most degraded land, even while immersed in the role of its governance.

[Similarly, Benjamin, "son of my right," was originally called "ben oni", "son of my pain", symbolizing the fact that Benjamin embodies the concept of teshuva, turning pain and death - the "left side" - into "right", i.e. beauty and life. The sons of Leah, by contrast, are stones of natural beauty that begin and end in the realm of holiness, the world of thought.]

While the Temple stood, the Land of Israel was permeated primarily with the world of Rachel, speech and revelation. G‑d, as it were, "spoke" to His world. Divinity was revealed. Consequently, the land was filled with wisdom, Divine Inspiration and prophecy. This revelation was most intense in the Holy Temple and in the Holy of Holies. Daily miracles were seen, such as the heavenly fire that descended and consumed the offerings. Prophecy was possible only in the Land of Israel…

[That prophecy was possible only in the Land of Israel can be seen from the story of Jonah. When Jonah was told by G‑d to rebuke Ninveh, he "ran away" from G‑d. (Jonah 1:3) Rashi explains that he left the land of Israel thinking that he would no longer have prophetic vision, since prophetic vision was granted only in the Land of Israel. He did not wish to carry out G‑d's command because he feared that the inhabitants of Ninveh would repent and thereby bring judgment upon the Jews,who had failed to repent despite the repeated rebuke spoken by their prophets.]

After the destruction of the Temple, Israel was exiled and, with them, the Shechinah. Rachel was no longer the world of speech and revelation but was "like a sheep/'rochel' muted before her shearers." (Isaiah 53:7) Leah, however, does not go into exile, she is called the "closed mem," a letter that is closed on all sides, symbolizing its invulnerability to darkness. (Rachel, on the other hand, is called the "open mem," open on one side, and vulnerable to the forces of exile.)

The Land of Israel became permeated with the world of Leah, thought, which is in truth loftier than the world of Rachel, just as thought, in contrast to speech, is a more spiritual and refined facet.

This created a paradox. On the one hand, divinity was now less revealed. On the other hand, the great tzadikim in the Land are now capable of grasping loftier dimensions of the Divine than those perceived by their equals in Temple days. This is because they can now perceive matters as they exist in the world of thought before their descent into the world of speech. Thus the Arizal, for example, perceived matters of the greatest profundity that eluded the great tzadikim of earlier generations. Jacob's primary focus in life was to bring divinity into the farthest place…

Jacob shows a preference for Rachel, while Leah is "scorned". This is not because Jacob has no appreciation for the lofty world of thought. Rather, this was because Jacob's primary focus in life was to bring divinity into the farthest place. In the Zohar, Jacob is compared to the middle pole (the "bariach hatichon") that went through the walls of the Tabernacle from one end to another. (Zohar III 186a) It is his task to draw the light of the highest spheres to the other end, the lower worlds. Thus we read in the Standing Prayer: "G‑d of Abraham, G‑d of Isaac and G‑d of Jacob…." The Hebrew equivalent of the word "and" is the letter vav. Jacob's life of drawing down the supernal light from the highest levels to the lowest resembles the letter vav, a straight, vertical line.

He therefore loves Rachel more than Leah, since his passion and desire is to bring the highest light of keter into the lowest sefira, malchut, the world of revelation, so that divinity is apparent to all.

Yet, as the Zohar writes, Jacob unites both Rachel and Leah. Although his primary focus was the world of Rachel, he was married to the world of Leah as well. His life was a synthesis of descent and ascent, Speech and Thought. His focus, however, was Speech. (Jacob is, as the Zohar calls him, "a man of completeness". In the sefiriotic scheme he is tiferet, the unifier of his predecessors, Abraham and Isaac - chesed and gevura, "return" and "yearning". Although tiferet is the balance between kindness and restraint, kindness is the more powerful element. Similarly, Jacob combines the "return" of his grandfather with the "yearning" of his father, but places a greater emphasis on the "return".)

After the birth of Levi, Leah declares, "This time my husband shall cleave to me". (Gen. 29:34) It was certainly not her intention to negate the need for the world of actuality, i.e., the fulfillment of Torah in speech and deed. Leah understood the need for Jacob to descend to the world of Rachel. Her argument was that Jacob's primary focus should be the world of thought.

Her argument is reflected in the behavior of the "early pious ones" who would spend nine hours of their day in prayer. (Berachot 32b)

Jacob, however, knew that this was the path of only a select few. Most of Israel is primarily involved in the world of speech and deed. He therefore made his tent with Rachel. At the same time, he was married to Leah, acknowledging the need for thought and transcendence.


Adapted by Yosef Marcus from Torah Ohr, parashat Vayeitzei.

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Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (18 Elul 1745-24 Tevet 1812), known as "the Alter Rebbe," was one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, and the founder of the Chabad Chassidism. He is the author of Shulchan Aruch HaRav and Tanya as well as many other major works in both Jewish law and the mystical teachings.
Rabbi Yosef Marcus is the director of Chabad of the Northern Penisula, based in San Mateo, California. A prolific writer on various Jewish subjects, including translations of deep chasidic discourses. He lives in Northern California with his wife Esther and daughter. He may be reached at kabbala@chabadnp.com.
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