In Parshas Veyetzei, Yaakov Avinu is on the run from his home and his twin brother who seeks to kill him. After “swindling” Esav out of the special bracha from their father, Yitzchak, their mother, Rivka, quickly tells her younger son to head for the hills. He winds up at a well blocked by a boulder surrounded by shepherds. Suddenly, he lays eyes on Rachel, and is immediately taken with her. Eventually, Rachel’s father, Lavan, the very uncle that Rivka sent Yaakov to live with, works out an arrangement with his nephew to marry his daughter on condition that he spend seven years working for him.
That was the plan.
After seven long years, Yaakov wakes up the morning after his wedding and discovers that it was not his beloved Rachel with him in their tent, but her older sister, Leah. The response he is met with from his father-in-law is that in their area, the younger daughter does not marry before the elder one. Another seven years of labor are in store for Yaakov in order for him to marry Rachel, and he begins fulfilling the terms of this agreement.
But before these events occur, the Torah informs us of Lavan and his two daughters, Leah and Rachel. In describing them, we learn that Leah has tender eyes, while Rachel has both beautiful features and a beautiful complexion.
Rashi explains that the reason that Leah’s eyes were tender (rakot) was due to the immense tears she cried over her apparent lot in life as being destined to marry Esav. Brother Lavan had two daughters and sister Rivka had two sons, therefore it was only natural that they would marry each other.
But Leah did not want that.
Leah was a righteous woman. The thought of marrying a man whose deeds were vile the likes of Esav was an anathema to her. The river of tears she wept and the copious amounts of tefillos so that she could be saved from this fate were enough to do just that. Therefore, explains Rashi, this is why her eyes were tender.
As a result of her pleading, Leah merited to marry Yaakov. The fact that this happened doesn’t mean that they had a perfect marriage or that she was even happy. If one were to read the psukim of this parsha: “And the Lord saw that Leah was hated, so He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben, for she said, ‘Because the Lord has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me.’ And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, ‘Since the Lord has heard that I am hated, He gave me this one too.’ So she named him Simeon. And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, ‘Now this time my husband will be attached to me, for I have borne him three sons’; therefore, He named him Levi. And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, “This time, I will thank the Lord! Therefore, she named him Judah, and [then] she stopped bearing.
Does this sound like the ideal relationship that a wife would desire from her husband? Is this the idyllic, storybook marriage that Leah could’ve hoped and dreamed for? Most likely not. Nevertheless, a union such as this meant more to her than one with her wicked brother-in-law. Even throughout this ordeal, we know that Leah is ultimately blessed to birth 7 of her husband’s children; Six of the Tribes of Israel and Yaakov’s only daughter, Dena.
Onkelos’ translation of how the text describes Leah’s eyes deviates slightly from that of Rashi, but provides monumental meaning to the verse. Onkelos renders Leah’s eyes not as tender, but beautiful. Leah’s eyes were beautiful, while Rachel’s face was beautiful. While this may seem as a mere comment about the way that each of the women looked, there is a deeper meaning behind Leah’s eyes. The eyes of Leah became “beautiful” because of the tears she cried. It was the demaos and the prayers that came from Leah that made her eyes exceedingly beautiful. It was the immense pain that the thought of being married to a person like Esav that elicited such a response from our holy matriarch.