When Star Wars premiered in 1977, my mother was thrilled. The name Leah wasn’t exactly popular when she grew up, in 1950’s America, and the proper Hebrew pronunciation Leia was absolutely unheard-of. But here came an instant pop-culture icon: Princess Leia, diplomat, spy, rebel. And she was portrayed by Eddie Fisher’s daughter. Now my Zeidy and Bubby seemed amazingly prescient! (Remind me to tell you about my Uncle Moishy…)
However, this didn’t solve the problem of the Torah’s portrayal of Leia/ Leah. She seems to be constantly overshadowed by her younger sister Rachel. Even though Leah bears Jacob 7 of his 13 children, she never seems to get her due.
This is particularly striking when it comes to their respective passings. Rachel’s tragic death is described in painstaking, breathtaking detail in Gen. 35, and then Jacob retells the story in this week’s portion, Parashat Vaychi. Both Samuel and Jeremiah refer to it in their prophecies.
Leah gets five anticlimactic words (four in Hebrew): “and there I buried Leah.”
But let’s look at that line in context–namely, Jacob’s last words (literally). Jacob is adjuring his sons to bury him in his ancestral plot in Hebron (Gen. 49:30-32):
In the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite for a possession of a burying-place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave that is therein, which was purchased from the children of Heth.
Notice that Jacob speaks of the other burials in the third person, “they buried,” despite the fact that he was presumably present at Abraham’s and definitely participated in Isaac’s (“And he was buried by his sons Esau and Jacob,” 35:29). Leah’s death is personal, even more so than that of Isaac.
The Midrashic chronology Seder Olam Rabbah (Ch. II) highlights this by noting that Leah and Jacob’s marriage lasted for 22 years–a crucial length of time in Jacob’s life. He spends 22 years away from his father and 22 years away from Joseph. And, according to this tradition, Leah was 22 when they married. In fact, that would put Leah’s passing a year or two before the sale of Joseph, which dovetails with the fact that Bilhah and Zilpah are referred to as “the wives of his father” at the beginning of Joseph’s story.
Moreover, this simple statement has national significance, as Nahmanides points out (ad loc.):
It may very well be that “and there I buried Leah” indicates that Jacob already exercised possession of the cave. This would frustrate any claim by Esau and his sons at the funeral, claiming that the cave should be his birthright and that he deserves to be buried with his forebears–that even though he went to another land, his sons should bear him just as Jacob’s sons bore him, as he desired to be buried with his holy forebears and to be united with them in burial.
Leah’s presence precludes Esau’s burial there. In fact, this may be seen as the first public expression of Jacob’s precedence. Every other instance of Jacob’s supplanting Esau occurs in private: between the two brothers, between them and their father, between him and God. However, Leah’s burial in the Cave of Machpelah (Couples’ Cave), which happens a decade and a half before the death of Isaac, conclusively demonstrates that only one of his sons is destined to be his heir and the bearer of the legacy of Abraham.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. The one thing we know about Leah before her marriage is that she had “eyes of refinement” (Gen. 29:17). As Isaiah (47:1-2) makes clear, the only place for a woman of delicacy and refinement is on the throne. In fact, various Midrashic sources (e.g. Gen. Rabbah, Vayera) identify her father Laban as none other than Kemuel, Lord of Aram. Which would make Leah a princess.
In any case, for forty years, Leah safeguards the field in Hebron which is the first property acquired by the Hebrews in the land of Canaan, guaranteeing that it is Jacob’s progeny (hers and her sister’s) which will have sovereignty in the land.
This is the ultimate distinction between Leah and Rachel. Rachel is buried on the way to Bethlehem, on the way back from Israel’s first exile, symbolizing that the Jewish people will always return to their land. But Leah is buried in Hebron, the city which symbolizes Jewish sovereignty. When the Israelites first return almost two centuries later to survey the land and conquer it, Hebron is the first stop (Num 13:22). When David, the shepherd from Bethlehem, is first crowned, he rules from Hebron.
This is the legacy of Leah our Mother.