By Zalmy Labkowsky
The following is a compilation of biblical texts, talmudic insights and midrashic anecdotes rendered in the first person. This is not the actual diary of Leah, wife of Jacob. To the best of my knowledge, no such document exists. Let a sizable quantity of salt accompany the reader, and lightly dust any part of this writing for which no source is given. Enjoy!
Since this is my very first entry, let me introduce myself. My name is Leah,1daughter of Lavan the Arami (that’s how we describe ourselves in these “olden days”). I live in Padan Aram,2 or Charan3 as it’s more commonly known, with my little sister and father. Our mother passed away not too long ago.4 Growing up with our father in this house hasn’t been easy. He is constantly worshipping idols.5 He’s obsessed with them. It’s like he is to idols, what Pachash Krachim is to Sellat (you might not get this reference; it’s a little dated).6 So my sister and I try keeping a low profile around here, doing our best to be pious and G‑d fearing, and not stir the pot too much (which is ironic, because we do all the cooking around here now that mother is gone).7
Being low key is a lot easier for my sister Rachel than it is for me. We’re nearly identical,8 but we’re at opposite ends of the spectrum. Rachel is an introvert. She prefers spending a quiet day indoors. I, on the other hand, love people, love interacting with them, meeting new friends, bringing them closer to G‑d. My dad hates that last part, but that kind of makes it more fun. For me, a day spent indoors is a day wasted.9
My life is not all fun and games however. Recently, my walks have been a source of great heartache for me. Let me give you some background. We have cousins who live in Canaan, and there are two boys in their family. So everyone, and I mean everyone,10 is saying that the older boy, Esau, is going to marry me, and the younger one, Jacob, will marry my sister Rachel.11 You get it? Because they are two boys and we are two girls, so, bam! Compatible! Yeah. I don’t get it either. But I found out that it’s not just celeb gossip (our family’s so cool we get put in that category12 ), it’s destiny. Also our families kind of arranged it already.13 So me being the curious and not-so-into-surprise-grooms type of gal that I am, go down to the major crossroads of town to find out about my future husband (the crossroads are like the Facebook of these days). And every person I speak to about this guy tells me awful stuff: “He’s a murderer.” “He’s a dreadful person.” “He steals.” “He’s super hairy.”14 “He’s a dreadful person.” (I get that one a lot.)15
Most of the time, I don’t listen long before I burst into tears16 (usually startling the person I’m talking to). And I can’t stop crying for hours, often drifting to sleep hugging my tear-soaked pillow. Then I wake up and do it all over again. It’s pure masochism. I’m crying so frequently these days that my eyelashes fell out!17 I keep praying to G‑d to reverse this destiny of mine,18 a destiny I feel I’ve received because of my unique ability to positively affect others. But a destiny that I would be much happier without. I just want to marry someone similar to my younger sister’s soulmate. From what I hear, he’s quiet, studious and pious. I know, I know, he sounds perfect for my sister. But why can’t I have someone like that too??
Leah (Are you supposed to sign off diary entries? I’m new to this…)
It’s been a while since I’ve last written, so I have a lot to catch you up on. The cousin I was telling you about—the one who is quiet, G‑d fearing and studious (his name is Jacob by the way)—came to town to look for a wife.19 Rachel met him by the well when she was tending to our sheep.20 Father won’t let me help her, because he says a girl of marriageable age shouldn’t be a shepherdess.21 I’ve also done pretty extensive damage to my eyes with all the crying, so being in the sunlight for too long is painful.22
Fun fact about our town: it’s completely unheard of for a younger sibling to get married before an older sibling.23 That puts us in a bit of a bind for a number of reasons. Firstly, as soon as Jacob and Rachel laid eyes on each other, they were smitten. Jacob even offered to do seven years of manual labor in exchange for her hand in marriage.24 Besides their clear compatibility, Jacob also prefers Rachel over me because he’s scared of his brother. Esau is planning to marry me, and so Jacob is deathly afraid to. Jacob is already on his brother’s hit list, and nothing says “kill me” more than marrying someone’s fiancé.25
Now let me tell you a little about my father. He’s known as “Lavan the Arami.” He got that nickname in part because the word arami comes from the Hebrew word that means “to trick.”26 And I can tell you that the nickname is not ironic. He didn’t earn it for his many years of upstanding business practices. I can also save you a lot of time, energy and money by telling you that he isn’t actually a Nigerian prince whose assets are frozen and who just needs a quick loan to access them.
Now, back to the cousin story. My father’s solution to our dilemma is as simple as it is twisted. He plans to substitute me for Rachel in the wedding ceremony and then just bide his time, hoping Jacob won’t realize until we’re already hitched.27 (Sounds super romantic I know. I’m getting goosebumps myself). Jacob seems to suspect something. He was conspicuously descriptive in his request from my father to marry “Rachel,” “your daughter,” “the younger one” (I mean most people here just call her Rach). He seems to have covered all his bases in preventing my father’s “Oh! That’s who you meant?” excuse.28 This guy is not as naïve as he looks.29
The day has come. After seven years of ups and downs, it’s finally here. It’s been an emotional Ferris wheel (it was a lot slower than a roller coaster). But rather than filling me with childlike glee and giving me a spectacular view, this ride has mostly had me gripping the handlebar waiting for it to end. The thought of deceiving this saintly man keeps me awake at night, and any mention of his name puts me on edge. But, on a few rare occasions, a small glimmer of hope is kindled. I think to myself that this surprise marriage may just work out. I mean, I think he likes me.31 So even though he prefers my sister, it won’t be all bad. Right? (I’m trying to convince myself, okay? Stop looking at me like that.) I almost feel as if this is the answer to all my prayers. As crazy as that answer seems to be, I have a feeling that this is my new destiny. I’m torn between feelings of gratitude and jubilation for the new journey I’m about to embark on, and feelings of guilt and nervousness for what might happen.32
In other news, Rachel just did the sweetest thing in the world. Because Jacob knows my father’s a crook, he quietly arranged a secret code with her to be able to distinguish her from a random girl. So, Rachel, being the sweetheart that she is, felt bad for me and told me the code.33 She gave up her dream of marrying Jacob for me. She’s letting me marry him because she knows that the alternative for me is Esau.34 She also can’t bear the thought of me being embarrassed at the wedding ceremony.35 Talk about a wedding gift for the history scrolls.
On this very auspicious day, I’m trying to avoid thinking about all the frightening possibilities, and instead focus on remembering the signs Rachel gave me. Big toe, thumb, right ear. Big toe, thumb, right ear.36
Just a day has passed, but it feels like a lifetime. I have been showered with blessings, and I feel humbled. When Jacob found out it was me he married, he could not have reacted better. He was respectful and understanding, caring and forgiving. He is such a saintly man. I feel very lucky to be married to him.
He went to my father to request my sister’s hand again (second time’s the charm I guess), and he offered to work another seven years for her (but afterthe wedding this time). My father agreed, and the wedding is set for right after the seven days of celebration for our marriage.37 I couldn’t be happier. Rachel didn’t have to give him up after all. All is right in the world.
Sincerely, and with a very full heart,
My apologies for not writing more often. I’ve been kept pretty busy with my children, thank G‑d. I also assumed you can hear what’s going on from inside the drawer, as my boys haven’t exactly been given library voices. I have four boys so far, and they’ve brought so much joy to our family. My relationship with my husband has been greatly enhanced as a result of these (objectively38 ) awesome kids.39 Their names reflect that.
I named my eldest son Reuben from the Hebrew “ra’ah,” “to see,” because G‑d has seen into my heart, and knows that I didn’t deceive my husband willingly.40 G‑d blessed me with an exceptional kid, so my husband wouldn’t hold a grudge against me.41
I named my third Levi (from the Hebrew word “livah,” “to accompany”). With him I’ve come to a deeper relationship with my husband because I’ve bore him a full quarter of the 12 tribes that will come forth from him.43
The reason I’m the one choosing the names and it’s not a joint effort is because these kids (and their brothers) will become 12 Tribes of Israel. More than just 12 blood lines that trace their lineage back to the same ancestor, these tribes represent 12 distinct styles of serving G‑d that distinguish them from the others. While every Jew in his essence shares a common bond with all other Jews, the tribes form a more specific, detail-oriented group that make their constituents part of that specific tribe and no other.
A jewish name is very important.45 It’s not just assigned at random. It is reflective of a person’s intricate personality and all of the traits that come with it. So when choosing a name for the tribes, one has to be cognizant of all the specific details that make them who they are and how their service of G‑d will look.46 That’s why it’s entrusted to the mother.
The unique job of a mother starts at conception. Given just the most basic general concept, a mother’s job is to carry it to term, adding layer upon layer of detail and personality. Finally, at the end of 9 months, there’s a fully functioning, multifaceted human being where a muddled blob once was.
A mother’s work isn’t done yet. The newborn child is still as helpless as a fetus, and the path in life he or she will choose is just as nebulous. A mother has to be involved every step of the way. As the vague form of her child begins to take shape, she has to keep the devil out of the details. With her constant guidance, a mother is essentially molding the child. She has to make sure that the great ideas in theory translate properly into actuality, and that the results live up to their potential. It’s only under a mother’s tender tutelage that a child’s true promise could be realized.
On a much more somber note, I’m also writing to you with bad news. It seems that my sister Rachel is having trouble conceiving.48 She even tried an ancient trick passed down through the women of our family to have your husband marry your maidservant.49 Let’s hope this works.
Just want to check in and tell you what happened today. Recently, I’ve been trying to have more children. It hasn’t been working.50 Twelve tribes are destined to come forth from Jacob, and I hope to merit to have as many as possible. I’ve been praying hard. (I also used Rachel’s trick of having Jacob marry my maidservant, Zilpa.51 She is such a sweetheart. Little known fact about her name: she’s called Zilpa from the Hebrew word that means “to drip,” because she used to cry with me about my Esau predicament.52 )
Rachel, seeing my son with the duda’im, wanted them for herself. She offered to trade quality time with Jacob in exchange for them.54 That girl knows how to get me. Spending time with my husband means so much to me. I would’ve given up anything.
It’s me, Leah. I’m just saying that because you might not recognize me with this huge belly. Who am I kidding? After six pregnancies you probably just assume this is my regular figure. Since I last wrote, I’ve had two more boys, Issachar56 and Zebulun,57 and I could not be happier. I’ve had as many tribes as all the other wives will combined.58 G‑d has truly been kind to me. He has rewarded me59 and granted me a great portion in life. 60
But now I’m really scared I’ll have a seventh boy. Rachel has yet to conceive, and the other wives each have two boys. If I have another boy, that will leave only one for Rachel to complete the twelve. (Don’t be intimidated by my math skills; I’m still very approachable.) I pray every day for G‑d to make this baby a girl.61
Sincerely and with a full womb,
It was a girl! A while ago now.
Let me give you a quick recap of the past bunch of years. First, I had a girl. We named her Dina.62 Then, at long last, Rachel was blessed with a son.63She named him Joseph. My father and brothers started getting hostile toward us,64 so we hit the road.65 On the way, we confronted Esau, Jacob’s estranged brother who was after his head. Thanks to Jacob’s strategic planning, and a lot of praying, we were spared.66
Today, after a long two years of traveling,67 we arrived in Canaan. We set up camp in a town called Shechem.68 My daughter, Dina, just went out to go meet the local girls.69 It’s so funny to watch her doing exactly what I did at that age. She has my personality, but more pronounced.70 She has such a way with people. People are drawn to her like thirsty hippos to a watering hole. I sometimes worry that she’ll attract the wrong type of person though. It seems Jacob fears that as well. He hid her away when we met his lascivious brother, Esau, for the first time. G‑d punished him for that, because he should have let Dina work her magic on Esau. He would have been putty in her hands, and she could have revealed the potential for good that no one else saw in him. And because Jacob prevented that, he was punished. 71
Although Leah lived for many more years, this is the last diary entry that we have. She is buried in the Cave of Machpeila alongside her husband.72Rachel was not buried there, but rather at a crossroad near Beit Lechem.73
DISCLAIMER: A large portion of this article is based on a literal reading of the texts. Please note: Our ancestors were vastly more spiritual and in tune with G‑d than we can ever fully grasp. The Zohar tells us that they are called chariots.76 Just as every twist and turn of a chariot is a direct result of the one guiding it, so every aspect of our ancestors’ beings was reflective of, and in tune with, their G‑dly mission. Any attempt to humanize them and bring them down to our level is usually a result of our inability to comprehend what is out of our league.
Please read these articles for more on how to find the proper balance between the literal text and its deeper meanings.
76. Zohar 1, 210:1. It’s taught that even during their sleep they were still on that level.
Rabbi Zalmy Labkowsky grew up in LA and currently lives in Brooklyn where he studies Talmud.