Beauty isn’t Binary

When we read the verses describing the differences between Rachel and Leah Vis-A-Vis Yaakov, they might make us somewhat uncomfortable: Rachel was beautiful and Leah’s “eyes were soft” (29:17); “And Hashem saw that Leah was hated” (29:31). Why is there such a negative description of Leah? If we look closer at the words, however, we notice a peculiarity. It never says that Yaakov hated Leah, but that “she was hated”. Similarly, it’s a bit strange that Leah herself credits her child Shimon to be due to her hated-ness: “Hashem heard that I was hated” (29:33). 


Rav Meri of Premishlan explains that, in truth, Leah’s “hated-ness”, had nothing to do with Yaakov, and was actually self-induced. Her “soft-eyes” were what she caused herself, purposefully, through crying. Rashi explained that Leah was destined to marry Eisav, as they were both the older children. Leah devised a plan to avoid that- she would make herself ugly and hated so that she wouldn’t have to. She, and Hashem, saw this as a merit to herself, that she would forego her own honor and reputation, by making herself ugly, in order not to marry Eisav (see a similar explanation if the Or HaChaim). 


We often categorize things in absolute terms- this is a good thing, that is a bad thing. But the truth is, things are rarely absolute, and exceptions exist for almost any trait. While ugliness is often associated with negativity, in this case Leah proves otherwise. Her merit was her ugliness. We should always put our actions and decisions into perspective of our ultimate goals and purpose in life. Even if something seems wrong in the eyes of others, it may actually be the right -and meritorious- thing to do.


A Chassidishe story illustrates this point beautifully: Rav Elimelech of Leszansk and Rav Zusha of Anipoli were once in a prison cell together. When Rav Elimelech saw that there was a toilet in the room he started to cry, as it prevented them from praying and studying together. Reb Zusha then said to Rav Elimelech, ‘The same Hashem who told us to learn when there’s no toilet in the room, told us to not learn when there is a toilet in the room’. Rav Elimelech was comforted, and they proceeded to dance and sing around the toilet. Despite the inability to learn at that moment, in that context, it’s what Hashem wanted from them. And after causing such a raucous with their dancing and singing, the prison guards moved them to a different cell -without a toilet- where they could continue their studies and their prayers.