These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

The Land of my Foremother

Posted on December 21, 2011 by Leah Stern

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Hello Pardesians and World,

For the first time in over a decade, Pardes took a tiyyul to the city of Hevron. It was a visit filled with mixed emotions. We examined Hevron from many different angles in order to assess the situation that is in Hevron today. While there are many things I could discuss, I am not going to speak about the controversial topics we encountered. Rather, I want to tell you all about my experience in Maarat HaMachpela, the tomb where the Avot and 3 of the Imahot are buried.

While we were climbing the steps up to Maarat HaMachpela, it occurred to me that Leah, my namesake, is buried there. I mean, think about it, this is the original Leah, the Leah that all other Leahs are named after and I, one who bears her name, was going to visit her gravesite. It was mind boggling. I’m not really sure I understood how I felt about it.

When we were free to wander the halls of the me’ara, I wandered from room to room until I finally found the room that held Jacob and Leah’s tombs. Leah’s tomb was on the men side of the mechitza. A fellow Leah, Leah Kahn, and I were forced to stare through the mechitza at Leah’s tomb and weren’t able to get close enough up to look through the grated iron bars over the window into the tomb. We were both frustrated, because we wanted to get closer to the very person who gave so many little girls her name. Finally, we decided that we would take a chance, and we crossed over to get a closer look. Thankfully, no one minded and we both walked out happy.

I’m not sure exactly what I felt looking into the room and seeing the tomb of my foremother and namesake. I felt a connection, but not the emotionally strong one like I expected. Considering my previous reactions at the kotel, I barely let out any emotion. If anything, it was just extremely cool that I, Leah, was visiting the grave of THE Leah, the Leah who was married to Jacob, the Leah that gave birth to 7 of the 12 tribes of Israel.

I’ve thought about my connection to Leah. For most of my life, I was the Leah in a sea of Rachels, always the odd one out. It reminded me how we talk about how Rachel was the one that Jacob loved and that Leah’s marriage to Jacob was a result of Lavan’s trickery. It reminded me how the Torah points out that Leah had weak eyes but Rachel was beautiful. It’s very clear from the text that Jacob loved Rachel more than he loved Leah. Leah had to bargain with Rachel in order to spend time with Jacob and spent much of her time trying to please Jacob by bearing as many children as possible. It’s clear that Leah had a very difficult life.

For a long time, I wondered why anyone would want their child Leah, the unloved one. In fact, I wondered why anyone would name any of their children after Biblical characters, so many of whom did terrible things or had terrible things that happened during their lifetimes. Then I thought about my own name and how I received it. My maternal great-grandmother’s Hebrew name was Rahel Leah, but everyone called her Leah instead of Rahel. When my parents named me, they switched around her name and gave me the name Leah Rahel instead of Rahel Leah.  After many years, I thought about my first name and realized how similar my personality was to the personality of Leah. Leah might have had a difficult life but she was strong. She had so many odds up against her and yet she overcame them.  She took joy in naming and raising her children. And in the end, she has the honor of being the mother of 7 of the tribes. Her hard work paid off in the end.

I, too, like Leah, am a fighter. I have had difficult obstacles in my life that I have had to overcome. And yet, no matter how tough it gets, I keep on pushing through, because I know there is something greater for me on the other side. And I know in the end, that the thing on the other side will make me stronger. I now realize why we choose to give our children names of Biblical characters. We are acknowledging that while these people are the pillars of our Judaism, they were also human beings; like us, they too made mistakes. But each of them had a special quality that we want to pass on to our children. We want to be human like them, we know we will make mistakes. But we also know that with the passing on of their name, the quality and essence of their character will be passed on to future Leahs and Rachels.

Every Friday night, girls are blessed by their parents saying, “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” As I stood beside my foremother’s grave, I was proud to be a Leah.  I knew I was fulfilling that blessing in my own way. Though we may be generations apart, I know that my foremother and my great-grandmother for whom I was named would be proud that I am carrying on their name and blessing. May all of us have that honor to carry forth the blessing of our namesakes and transmit it to future generations.