It's difficult not to sympathize with our patriarch Jacob, who in this week's Torah portion becomes the victim of a last minute switch by his father-in-law, who tricks him into marrying the wrong woman.

The Torah relates that Laban had two daughters, Leah and Rachel. "Leah had weak eyes, while Rachel was shapely and beautiful." Jacob loved Rachel and he offered to work seven years for her. (Gen. 29:16-18)

When the seven years were up, Laban substituted Leah for Rachel on the night of the wedding. Jacob discovered the deception only after he had consummated the marriage with Leah. Jacob accepted his fate and remained with Leah. But he later also married Rachel, the bride of his choice: "…and he loved Rachel more than Leah." (Gen. 29:23-28) Before the wedding ceremony, the groom…covers her face with a veil…

Yet, at the end, it was Leah who became Jacob's primary wife. Rachel died at a young age, so that most of Jacob's married life was actually spent with Leah. In addition to this, it was Leah who mothered most of Jacob's children, the future tribes of Israel and it was she, not Rachel, who ultimately was buried with Jacob in the Cave of Machpela in Hebron.

Why did this marriage - the marriage that formed the foundation of the Jewish nation, the marriage that produced every single Jew living since - have to come about in such an appalling manner? And why did Jacob have to go through this absurd experience?

The Veil

There is a custom practiced during Jewish weddings known as the "bedeken", or the "veiling". Before the wedding ceremony, the groom goes to the room where his bride is sitting on a throne, and he covers her face with a veil. Her face remains covered during the entire chupah ceremony.

One of the traditional explanations for this custom is that it commemorates the event that occurred during Jacob's wedding ceremony. Since Jacob's bride was veiled, he did not realize that he was marrying the wrong woman. But if that is the reason, shouldn't the custom be that the groom uncovers his bride's face to make sure that he is marrying the bride of his choice? Why are we commemorating at each of our weddings this terrible episode that occurred to poor Jacob?

War and peace

In the writings of the Kabbala, Leah and Rachel represent two dimensions existing in each of our spouses, women and men alike. Rachel, "the shapely and beautiful sister", embodies the attractive, charming and romantic features of our spouse. In fact, in Hebrew "Rachel" means "ewe", an animal characterized by its bright white color and its serene and lovable nature. Also, the numerology of the Hebrew name "Rachel" is the same as the numerology of the Hebrew words "and there was light" (Gen. 1:3). Leah and Rachel represent two dimensions…

"Leah", a name that literally means "one who is weary", represents those elements in our spouse that are more complicated, perplexing and disturbing. Leah, the weak-eyed sister, weakened from tears and anxiety, embodies our continuous and exhausting struggle with the dark demons and ugly impulses in our lives.

Thus, in Chassidic writings, Rachel is associated with the tzadik-personality, while Leah is associated with the baal-teshuva (penitent) figure. The tzadik is the pure and sacred human being, reflecting the harmony and goodness of his Creator. The baal-teshuva, on the other hand, embodies the tumultuous individual who must continuously battle the negative urges and destructive habits rooted in his or her psyche.

This is the deeper significance behind the plan initially proposed that Leah would marry Esau and Rachel would marry Jacob (see Baba Batra p.123a. Midrash Rabba Gen. 70:16. Rashi Gen. 29:17). The pure Rachel was the perfect match for the righteous Jacob, while the struggling Leah was the perfect candidate to refine and sublimate the crude Esau and restore him to his innate spiritual potential. Leah was the perfect candidate to refine and sublimate the crude Esau…

The drama that occurred at the wedding of the father of the Jewish people, occurs at almost every wedding. When you get married, you may think that you are marrying Rachel: the comely, perfect and fictitious spouse that you chose in your dreams. But in reality, you are bound to discover that you ended up with Leah, a human being possessing layers of unresolved wounds and tension.

Initially you may love and appreciate only the Rachel dimension of your marriage partner and despise the Leah part of that individual. Yet as life progresses you will come to discover that it is precisely the Leah dimension of your spouse, more than anything else, that was always meant for your soul. This is because it is the shortcomings and imperfections of your spouse that challenge you to transcend your ego and become the person you are capable of being.

Creating a space

That's the secret behind the veiling. When the groom veils his bride, he is essentially stating "I will love and respect not only the you which is presently visible to me, but also the you that is still concealed from me and might emerge only later. I am committed not just to the "Rachel" in you, but also to the "Leah" in you.

"As I bond with you in marriage," the groom is saying, "I am creating a space within me to accept and nurture the totality of your being."

Copyright 2000 by Yosef Y. Jacobson
Based on the writings of the Ari, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

[The application of the Rachel-Leah episode to everyday marriages is from "Endless Light" by Rabbi David Aaron, pp. 37-38.]