Love Interrupted: When Ya’akov Finally Fell for Leah (Vayishlach)

Parshat Vayishlach opens with Ya’akov’s multi-pronged preparation for meeting his estranged brother Eisav. Famously, he sends gifts to his brother, prepares for war, and prays. When it comes time to meet Eisav, we find this final bit of preparation:

ספר בראשית פרק לב פסוק א
וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה עֵשָׂו בָּא וְעִמּוֹ אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ וַיַּחַץ אֶת־הַיְלָדִים עַל־לֵאָה וְעַל־רָחֵל וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַשְּׁפָחוֹת׃

Ya’akov lifted his eyes and behold – Eisav was coming, and with him 400 men. He divided the children among Leah, among Rachel, and among the two maidservants (Bilhah and Zilpah).

This Pasuk requires explanation: What was Ya’akov’s novel idea in “dividing up the children” among their mothers? Wouldn’t each child naturally have gravitated to its mother at this tense moment in any event? What was Ya’akov trying to accomplish? Furthermore, even if Ya’akov had something in mind here, why does this detail require relating to us at this critical moment in the story?

Continuing on to the next Pasuk, we find the order of Ya’akov’s camp:

ספר בראשית פרק לב פסוק ב
וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת־הַשְּׁפָחוֹת וְאֶת־יַלְדֵיהֶן רִאשֹׁנָה וְאֶת־לֵאָה וִילָדֶיהָ אַחֲרֹנִים וְאֶת־רָחֵל וְאֶת־יוֹסֵף אַחֲרֹנִים׃

He put the maidservants and their children first, and Leah and her children last, and Rachel and Yosef last.

Commenting on this Pasuk, Rashi makes the following pithy observation:

רש”י לספר בראשית פרק לב פסוק ב
אַחֲרוֹן אַחֲרוֹן חָבִיב:

Whatever comes last is (the most) beloved.

This is a reasonable explanation for how Ya’akov is not neglecting his two wives, as it might seem at first glance. The problem is the location of Rashi’s comment in his commentary. It would have made sense for Rashi to say this at the part of the Pasuk discussing Rachel, who was both last and the most beloved. It may also have made sense for Rashi to make this comment earlier in the Pasuk, when the maidservants are mentioned, as this is when the listing of names is beginning. In fact, this is essentially the approach taken by the Midrash:

ספר בראשית פרק לב פסוק ב
וישם את השפחות ואת ילדיהן ראשנה (בראשית לג, ב), הדא אמרה אחרון אחרון חביב.

“He put the maidservants and their children first” (Bereishit 32:2) – This is like what people say, “Whatever comes last is (the most) beloved.”

Rashi, however, takes the least likely approach, inserting his comment at the part of the Pasuk dealing with Leah:

רש”י לספר בראשית פרק לב פסוק ב
ואת לאה וילדיה אחרנים.
 אַחֲרוֹן אַחֲרוֹן חָבִיב:

“And Leah and her children last” – Whatever comes last is (the most) beloved.

Rashi’s placement of this comment requires explanation. After all, Leah was neither the last of the first group (אחרון), or the last altogether (אחרון אחרון), or beloved (חביב)! As we well know, Ya’akov loved Rachel far more than he loved Leah. Why does Rashi choose to comment specifically on Leah that אחרון אחרון חביב, whatever comes last is (the most) beloved?

Let us offer the following approach to answering the two questions we have laid out so far. Perhaps Ya’akov did not place the children with their own actual mothers, such that Leah would have stood with seven children (six sons and Dinah), Bilhah and Zilpah with two each, and Rachel with one. Instead he divided them up evenly (ויחץ implying an even division), three mothers ending up with three children each and one mother with two. Leah’s abundance of children could thus not be easily discerned by Eisav upon his approaching the camp. Ya’akov’s next step was to mix up the order of the mothers so that Leah was third, rather than first (she was, after all, the oldest, the first one married, and the one with the most kids) or last (as she was the least beloved). Her spot at #3 further obscured her identification, again making it difficult for Eisav to spot her.

Upon approaching Ya’akov’s camp, Eisav had a legitimate claim to take Leah away with him as his wife, as Leah was intended to be Eisav’s bride, a proposition that was deeply troubling to her (see Rashi to 29:17). Both of Ya’akov’s actions described in the Pesukim mitigate the possibility of Eisav spiriting Leah away. Ya’akov divides up the children evenly (33:1), so that Eisav cannot easily discern which of the women is Leah based on her larger number of children. Ya’akov then puts Leah in a nondescript location within the camp (33:2), again obscuring which of the women Eisav could legitimately take as a bride. Eisav asks two times for Ya’akov to identify the members of his party (33:5 and 33:8), but each time Ya’akov demurs rather than identify each of the people, including Leah, by name. Eisav leaves without being able to take Leah away with him.

Now we can understand why Rashi places his comment that אחרון אחרון חביב (“the later, the more beloved”) on the part of the Pasuk discussing Leah rather than the part discussing Rachel. The words אחרון אחרון חביב could alternatively be explained as “in the final analysis, she was beloved.” Leah has waited fruitlessly for thirty years to be treated as beloved by Ya’akov, to be given his love and attention. And in this final moment of the story – אחרון אחרון – he shows his love for Leah by shielding her from the gaze of the libidinous Eisav. When all is said and done, אחרון אחרון, Ya’akov did indeed show חביבות, love, to Leah.

Sometimes we perform acts of chesed because we love someone, while at other times we love someone because we have performed acts of chesed for them. It is not a coincidence that Ya’akov only truly begins to love Leah at this late stage in the story, because it is now that he has performed an act of chesed for her, protecting her from Eisav by divvying out the children evenly and hiding her among the other wives. We make a mistake in thinking that Ya’akov’s love for Rachel was what led to his working for her; in fact the chesed that he did for her was what inspired that love. Consider their first meeting:

ספר בראשית פרק כט פסוקים י-יא
וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָה יַעֲקֹב אֶת־רָחֵל בַּת־לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ וְאֶת־צֹאן לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ וַיִּגַּשׁ יַעֲקֹב וַיָּגֶל אֶת־הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת־צֹאן לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ׃
וַיִּשַּׁק יַעֲקֹב לְרָחֵל וַיִּשָּׂא אֶת־קֹלוֹ וַיֵּבְךְּ׃

And it was when Ya’akov saw Rachel, the daughter of Lavan, the brother of his mother – and the sheep of Lavan, the brother of his mother – that Ya’akov approached and rolled the stone from the top of the well; and he gave water to the sheep of Lavan, the brother of his mother.
Ya’akov then kissed Rachel, and he lifted his voice and cried.

What was it about Rachel that so infatuated Ya’akov? Surely he was attracted to her, as we find out later. Yet it was not until he had performed an act of chesed for her, rolling the stone and watering her sheep, that he loved her. Then he worked for her for seven years, and then for another seven years, but in all this time we never see Ya’akov perform an act of chesed for Leah, and so there is no love. But now, at this late stage of the story, אחרון אחרון, when he has performed the chesed of saving Leah from being taken away by Eisav, she too is חביב, beloved, to him. The timing is fortuitous, because Rachel will soon die in childbirth, leaving Leah as Ya’akov’s only remaining wife. It is intriguing that the Torah never tells us when Leah dies, unlike every other major character in Bereishit (and some minor ones), but this is the final moment that we see Leah alive; any references to her after this are hidden within references to her progeny (for example, 46:15). Scenes involving Ya’akov for the duration of the book always place him living alone; Leah is never to be seen again. And it is at this final moment, אחרון אחרון, that Ya’akov discovers in Leah the love that he could have felt for her all along.

A final word: Sometimes our love for someone is eternal, realized from the outset and stretching beyond the reaches of time. Other people gallop through our lives nearly unnoticed and unloved. Ya’akov captured the moment just before the clock expired on his time with his wives, at long last feeling Leah’s pain and coming to love her through a final act of chesed on her behalf. We always have the opportunity to reset the relationships we have with those around us, even at the last minute. It is never too late to view an old friend with fresh eyes. There is no better way to seize the day than to view it as our last, or as the last of someone around us. Seize the day.

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