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Daughters of Lavan

Adapted from Torah Ohr by Rabbi Yossi Marcus[1]


And Lavan had two daughters…

The Zohar, commenting on the verse, Who is this that looks forth as the morning…,[1] makes the following statement[2]:

Who and This (mee and zohs) denote two worlds. Who symbolizes the most supernal sphere, the unknowable beginning of all things. This, is a lower sphere, the so-called “lower world”…   

…Yaakov, “the complete one,” united the two worlds as one. He united them above, and he united them below, and from him issued the twelve holy tribes after the supernal pattern. Yaakov, who was “a man of completeness,”[3] brought harmony to the two worlds. Other and lesser men, who follow Yaakov’s example merely uncover nakedness both above and below…as it is written, You shall not marry a woman and her sister….[4]


Yaakov’s two wives, Leah and Rochel, are embodiments of two worlds: “the unknowable” world of thought, and the “lower world,” the world of speech. Leah embodies the world of thought, the hidden world, known as alma di’iskasya. Rochel embodies the world of speech, the revealed world, known as alma di’iskasya.

(Similarly, Rabbi Chaim Vital writes that the generation of the exodus stem from the world of thought. They therefore did not wish to enter the land of Israel, the world of speech, but rather wished to live in the desert where they lived a spiritual existence and experienced Torah and mitzvos in the realm of thought alone.)

Leah is the older one, ha’gedolah. This can also be read as hey gedolah, “the great hey,” referring to the first hey of G-d’s Name, which embodies Binah, understanding. Rochel is the younger one, ha’ktanah, which can be read as hey k’tanah, “the small hey,” referring to the second hey of G-d’s Name, which embodies Malchus, the lowest sefirah.[5]

[Leah therefore gives birth to seven children, six boys and one girl, just as Binah gives birth to the seven emotions—six masculine (Chessed through Yesod), and one feminine, Malchus.[6])

The difference between Rochel and Leah is seen in their children as well. Leah’s children were shepherds. They lived in the world of thought, apart from society and the mundane world. Rochel’s child, Yosef, lived within the world. He remained a tzadik even in the most degraded land, even while immersed in the role of its governance.

(Similarly, Binyamin, “son of my right,” was originally called ben oni, “son of my pain,” symbolizing the fact that Binyamim embodies the concept of teshuvah, turning pain and death (the “left side”) into “right,” beauty and life. The sons of Leah, by contrast, are stones of natural beauty that begin and end in the realm of holiness, the world of thought.)]

Two Lands

While the Beis Hamikdosh stood, the Land of Israel was permeated primarily with the world of Rochel, speech and revelation. G-d, as it were, “spoke” to His world. Divinity was revealed. Consequently, the land was filled with wisdom, Divine inspiration and prophecy.

This revelation was most intense in the Holy Temple and in the Holy of Holies. Daily miracles were seen, such as the heavenly fire that descended and consumed the offerings.

(That prophecy was possible only in the Land can be seen from the story of Yonah. When Yonah was told by G-d to rebuke Ninveh, he “ran away” from G-d.[7] Rashi explains that he left the land of Israel thinking that he would no longer have prophetic vision, since prophetic vision was granted only in the Land of Israel. [He did not wish to carry out G-d’s command because he feared that the inhabitants of Ninveh would repent and thereby bring judgment upon the Jews (who had failed to repent despite the repeated rebuke spoken by their prophets.)])

After the destruction of the Temple, Israel was exiled and with them the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. Rochel was no longer the world of speech and revelation but was “like a sheep (rochel) muted before her shearers.”[8] 

Leah, however, does not go into exile. She is called the “closed mem,” a letter that is closed on all sides, symbolizing its invulnerability to darkness. (Rochel, on the other hand, is called the “open mem,” open on one side, and vulnerable to the forces of exile.)

The Land of Israel was now permeated with the world of Leah, thought, which is in truth loftier than the world of Rochel, just as thought, in contrast to speech, is a more spiritual and refined facet.

This created a paradox. On the one hand, Divinity was now less revealed. On the other hand, the great tzadikim in the Land are now capable of grasping loftier dimensions of the Divine than those perceived by their equals in Temple days. For they can now perceive matters as they exist in the world of thought before their descent into the world of speech. Thus Arizal, for example, perceived matters of the greatest profundity that eluded the great tzadikim of earlier generations.

A Scorned Wife

Yaakov shows a preference for Rochel. Leah is “scorned.” This is not because Yaakov has no appreciation for the lofty world of thought. Rather, this was because Yaakov’s primary focus in life was to bring Divinity into the farthest place.

In the Zohar, Yaakov is compared to the middle pole (briach hatichon) that went through the walls of the Tabernacle from end to another.[9] It is his task to draw the light of the highest spheres to the other end, the lower worlds.

Thus we read in the Amidah prayer: …G-d of Avraham, G-d of Yitzchak and G-d of Yaakov…. The Hebrew equivalent of and is the letter vov. Yaakov’s life of drawing down the supernal light from the highest levels to the lowest resembles the letter vov, a straight, vertical line.

He therefore loves Rochel more than Leah, since his passion and desire is to bring the highest light of Kesser into the lowest sefirah, Malchus, the world of revelation, so that Divinity is apparent to all.


Yet, as the Zohar writes, Yaakov unites both Rochel and Leah.  Although his primary focus was the world of Rochel, he was married to the world of Leah as well. His life was a synthesis of descent and ascent, Speech and Thought. His focus, however, was Speech.

[He is, as the Zohar calls him, a man of completeness. In the sefiriotic scheme he is Tiferes, harmony, the unifier of his predecessors, Avraham and Yitzchak, Chessed and Gevurah, shov and ratzo, Return and Yearning. Although Tiferes is the balance between kindness and restraint, kindness is the more powerful element. Similarly, Yaakov combines the shov of his grandfather with the ratzo of his father, but places a greater emphasis on the shov.]

After the birth of Levi, Leah declares: “this time my husband shall cleave to me.” It was certainly not her intention to negate the need for the world of actuality, i.e., the fulfillment of Torah in speech and deed.  Leah understood the need for Yaakov to descend to the world of Rochel. Her argument was that Yaakov’s primary focus should be the world of thought.

Her argument is reflected in the behavior of the “early pious ones” (chassidim harishonim) who would spend nine hours of their day in prayer.[10]

But Yaakov knew that this was the path of only a select few. Most of Israel is primarily involved in the world of speech and deed. He therefore made his tent with Rochel.[11] &

[Adapted and summarized by Rabbi Yosef Marcus from Torah Ohr, Vayeitzei.]


[1] Song of Songs 6:10.

[2] Zohar, Terumah, 126b and 127a.

[3] Genesis 25:27.

[4] Leviticus 18:18.

[5] In man's service to his Creator, Leah corresponds to the study of Torah, which must be understood with one’s Binah (understanding), and Rachel to the mitzvot that are accomplished through speech and action (Sefer Hamamarim Melukat, 1:211.)

[6] Ohr Hatorah, Vayishlach 250a.

[7] Yonah 1:3.

[8] Isaiah 53:7.

[9] 3:186a.

[10] Berachos 32b.

[11] At the same time, he was married to Leah, acknowledging the need for thought and transcendence.


[1] From a discourse of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "the Alter Rebbe."



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