Rachel and Leah are not just our shared ancestors, they also represent two approaches to how to live a meaningful life. Rachel lived a life of ‘doing’ while Leah represents a life of “being.” Which approach is more preferred?
Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, Director of Midreshet Yerushalayim, Midreshet Schechter explores Parashat Vayetze to find the answer and reveals the value and importance in both of these approaches to life.
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Who out of the two sisters in Parashat Vayetze holds the best recipe for happiness? Leah or Rachel?
They are usually compared to each other and in Dante’s Divine Comedy, written in the Middle Ages, when he almost gets to the terrestrial heaven, he has a dream, and in his dream, he sees Leah and Rachel. Rachel represents a contemplative way of life. The way of ‘seeing’, she views herself in the mirror watching her own reflection, while Leah represents “doing” the active way of life.
In his early philosophical work, Dante followed Aristotle and explains that a contemplative way of life gives you more happiness. It’s a better type of happiness than the active way of life.
So, you can also see this concept in Michelangelo’s famous statue in Rome (once you get to Rome, after corona!), you can see Rachel and Leah represented in the same way.
Our sages view the way of seeing through books. The mirror in which Rachel was seeing her own reflection was actually the Torah. That’s how we contemplate life. The question of what is better, action, or study was raised in the Talmud. In a discussion, Rabbi Tarfon said that action is greater while Rabbi Akiva said that study is greater. The rest of the rabbis agreed with Rabbi Akiva that study is greater because it leads to action. So you don’t have to choose between the two, but you chose the one that leads to the other.
As for me, Rachel actually leads a very active life, like the life of a fighter. For me, she represents “becoming”. Becoming a mother of all Jews from a very young, beautiful, and kind of clueless girl who can’t have children. She fights for whatever she wants to become and she is so different from Leah. Leah actually lives the life of ‘being’ whoever she is, flowing with the wind, being grateful to God for whatever she has in life, thus naming her son, Yehuda.
The greatness of our ancestors that we have both; Rachel and Leah. Whether they represent the active way of life or the contemplative way of life, the way of becoming or the way of being. Both of them are part of our ‘imahot’ and that is the greatness of our ancestors.
Irina Gritsevskaya is the Executive Director of Midreshet Schechter. She holds an LL.B. from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an LL.M., and was ordained by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. A native of St. Petersburg, Rabbi Gritsevskaya made aliya as a teenager and currently lives in Tel Aviv.