I AM LEAH, ADONAY, and my eyes are weak. All my life I have been not right—weak of eyes instead of beautiful of form, weak of eyes instead of beautiful to see; an eldest girl instead of an eldest boy, an eldest girl instead of a youngest girl. Even Rakhel [Rachel], Adonay, my baby sister, who loved me in our earliest years, felt bitterness toward me in the end. Even Ya’akov [Jacob], husband by my own father’s design, believed I had helped to trick him, Adonay, and despised me to the end.
Only my children saw me, Adonay, and only they and my handmaid Zilpah loved and cared for me. In many ways, Adonay, I am a weak woman, but I am strong in love, and I love until death—a dangerous combination, Adonay, perhaps most dangerous in a woman. For I loved my sister Rakhel and I loved Ya’akov, but me they did not love. My eyes are weak but I see much, Adonay, and though I tried to make a place for myself, Adonay, I never belonged in my own home.
From the beginning you saw my pain and did what you could to help me. You opened my womb and gave me seven children, Adonay, and you made my Rakhel barren for many years. But even this could not help me. Adonay, and the names of my children tell my story. By their names I say prayers, Adonay. Through their names I tell my people the story of my heart:
R’euven, meaning “may my husband please love me.” Shim’on, “God has heard that I am hated.” Levi, “new my husband will join me.” But three sons to no avail. Thus I left off hoping and “I praised you,” Adonay, in Y’hudah— for you stayed by me when I was otherwise alone.
And when much later I birthed again, Adonay, I “cleared my debt” with Y’ssachar, for Zilpah my maid had already birthed Gad and Asher on my behalf. I prayed one last time with Z’vulun, “let my husband love me, dwell with me,” but with Dinah, my final child, I accepted your “judgment.” I have given to Ya’akov as much as Zilpah and Rakhel and Rakhel’s maid Bilhah all together—six sons, Adonay—but I have not received my husband’s love. May my story be heard.
I learned to draw sustenance from what I received, Adonay. Above everything, I gained satisfaction in my handmaid Zilpah and the love of my children, especially, Adonay, in the love of my firstborn, R’euven. R’euven, R’euven. My first hope, my last hope. Who but R’euven would bring mandrakes for me to make Ya’akov love me . . . who but R’euven would see with clear eyes that my husband did not love me? R’euven hurt for me, Adonay. In his heart there was pain for the loneliness of his mother, and he brought comfort to me, Adonay, like no one else. If only that he saw me was enough.
Many of the nights that I was alone, Adonay, I tried to understand why Rakhel and Ya’akov hated me as they did. Perhaps their hatred was closer to guilt. Inside, did Rakhel perhaps feel badly for me, Adonay, so lonely without love—in a tent only calling distance from her own? When we were little children, Adonay, we had a story between us that we told over and over, of the man who would come and love us both, because we would not stand to be parted. Maybe she was sad, Adonay, if she remembered our story. Maybe she cried, Adonay, because we had our one man and he separated us more than two men from different tribes could ever have done.
Did she weep, Adonay, that we came to say nothing together but bitter words? Or perhaps her hatred was really anger, Adonay, that I bore, six sons and a daughter, and she only two sons, and only at the very end, Adonay, after more than twenty barren years. But it is also possible, Adonay, that she saw nothing at all, how else could she have taken those mandrakes from me, granting me in exchange but a single night—only one—with my own husband?
Now, since Rakhel has died, Adonay, Ya’akov speaks with me, but my nights are no less lonely. One night, however, Adonay, Ya’akov called to me from the tent door in a hesitant voice, and I let him in with gentleness. He told me his story of Esav, his brother, of whom I know only a little, only that which poured then from my husband’s mouth.
Now on lonely nights, Adonay, I think of how Ya’akov bought his brother’s birthright, with a bowl of lentils and some bread. Ya’akov cried to tell it, Adonay, and I comforted him, but only with my arms. For that night, in my heart, Adonay, I finally understood. They are of one way— Ya’akov and Rakhel. Esav and I are of another. Esav traded his life for a single bowl of food; I traded my mandrakesmy chance for love—for a single night with my husband. And I cry, Adonay, for the cycles that turn. And I pray in my heart, Adonay, that the circles you spin are for the good.
I AM RAKHEL, ADONAY. I went to the well one morning and saw with my own eyes the man who would be my husband, many years hence. I knew I wanted him, and I received what I wanted. But I did not receive what I wanted in the way that I wanted it.
When I was very young my mother died. I cried and cried but my mother did not live again, and Leah my sister loved me and raised me and comforted me, so that after a time I loved Leah in my mother’s place.
Leah and I had a story we used to tell again and again, that one day a man would arrive at our house and he would marry us both and we would live with him, all of us together, all of us happy. But when I saw Ya’akov, I knew this story to be impossible. I loved Ya’akov. When he kissed me I knew he loved me too, and Leah would need to find someone else. How could I have known that my father Laban would make this impossible? Father, Father. A more stupid man never was. All of Leah’s pain is from Father, though she thinks it is I, and perhaps Ya’akov, who are to blame.
But we loved each other, Ya’akov and I. Loved and understood each other. We thought the same, planned the same, were, so it sometimes felt, of one flesh. What could we do? Not love each other? That would have been as impossible as asking the wind to stop blowing. And it would have been absurd. Then no one would have been happy, and at least the way we loved, Ya’akov and I had our moments. But even those were few, as Father had guaranteed.
Many children were not my due, though I longed with all my soul to bear fruit like Leah, to fill the tent with little men, their sweet voices and faces everywhere I looked. But no, instead to Leah and Ya’akov seven, and six of them boys! But to me not even one for many many years, and then precious, dear to my heart Yosef. And years later, so many years later, another—and he on my deathbed.
Ya’akov loved me, he didn’t care how many children I had for him. But I cared. The only time Ya’akov became angry with me was when I cried out to him— Give me children! Then he knew I hadn’t yet taken his Adonay to be my God. To make me “pay,” he took Bilhah and she conceived and birthed. Then I knew you, Adonay, but still Ya’akov took Bilhah once again, and again she conceived and birthed. After that a little time passed, and then we were once again happy.
I didn’t want to hurt Leah, but why did she have to make everything so hard? She knew that Ya’akov loved me—why did she try and try to make him love her? Foolish woman, she thought herbs could bring her Ya’akov’s love, but mandrakes bring babies, not love— everyone knows that. I needed them more than she. And then how she used to say that Ya’akov was her husband! He was my husband, and hers only from deceit. Didn’t she know that?
One evening, though, I passed by her tent and I heard her crying. Listening, I thought it was my own heart that had broken. I suddenly remembered a time when we were very young. Father had punished me and I cried so hard that my head throbbed. Leah heard me and came to my bed and rocked me, singing her sweet, soft songs. Remembering this, I wanted so to enter her tent and comfort her as she had so often comforted me in childhood. But then I thought—for what? I am the cause of all her pain! What could I do for her? And so instead I returned to my tent and cried myself to sleep, also uncomforted.
It was from that evening and because I knew I was on my deathbed even as I breathed life into this world—that I named my second son Ben-Oni, son of my unhappiness. Of course Ya’akov changed the name. What did he know, really? I tried to leave in my last child’s name a reminder, a marker, a warning perhaps: son of my unhappiness. But Ya’akov wanted, in our last child’s name, to tell his own story.
I died after a sad life, Adonay, still full with desires, of a god who stayed always a little strange to me, married to a man for whom I waited fourteen years and then shared with three others. I paid for childbirth with death, Adonay, and died so far from the heart of my sister. I died in the desert, Adonay, and was buried along the way.
Zeise Wild Wolf lives and writes in Saint Paul, Minnesota.