A month after Yaakov arrived in Charan – during which time he had worked, unpaid, for Lavan – Yaakov’s soon-to-be father-in-law finally offers him with an opportunity to be compensated for any future contributions:
“You are my family after all, and you’ve thus far worked for me for free, name your salary.” (29:15)
Yaakov’s ultimate response to this offer is simultaneously expected and puzzling:
“I will work seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter” (ibid: 18)
On the one hand, Yaakov only finds himself in Lavan’s house in order to find a wife; so asking to marry Rachel whom “he loved” as his ‘wages’ is logical; on the other hand, why does he initially offer seven years?! Should he not have started with one year’s work, for example, and if Lavan refused, then work his way up?! Why would his initial offer be to give up seven years of his life – unmarried and working for free – when he was given the opportunity to name his price?
This exchange has yet another layer of difficulty. For between the two pesukim listed above (15 and 18), overtly interrupting Lavan’s proposal and Yaakov’s ‘direct’ response to that proposal, the Torah interjects two narrative pesukim:
“And Lavan had two daughters; the name of the elder [גדולה] was Leah and the name of the younger [קטנה] was Rachel. And the eyes of Leah were soft [רכות]; and Rachel was beautiful of form [יפת תואר] and beautiful in appearance [יפת מראה]” (ibid: 16-17)
At first glance, these verses of narrative ‘interruption’ could be simply understood as presenting the ‘facts’ with which Yaakov will then ultimately make his request: he chooses the ‘beautiful’, ‘younger daughter of Lavan’ as compensation for his future work. However, in light of this approach, these two pesukim present three puzzling issues:
- We have already met Rachel at the well when Yaakov first arrived; why would the Torah begin with the words ‘and Lavan had two daughters,’ instead of just saying something like ‘and Lavan also had an elder daughter named Leah’ (i.e. the one whom he will not ultimately choose)?
- The Torah here uses the labels גדולה and קטנה to describe the two daughters’ status. While it is possible to understand these words as meaning ‘elder’ and ‘younger’ – as opposed to the literal translations of the physical characteristics of ‘bigger’ and ‘smaller’ – ten pesukim later, the Torah refers to these same two daughters as בכירה and צעירה – the more precise terms to describe an age order of ‘elder’ and ‘younger’. So, why in this enigmatic description, does the Torah choose to label the two girls specifically as physically ‘bigger’ and ‘smaller’?
- What does the description of Leah’s eyes being ‘soft’ actually mean? Why do we even care? And is this feature at all related to the description of Rachel’s beauty that follows it?
Returning to our original question: why does Yaakov immediately propose a prolonged seven-year deal as his initial offer to Lavan? When Rivkah originally sent her younger son away from home to escape his wrathful and threatening older brother, she said:
“Go and settle with [Lavan] for a while until your brother’s fury subsides. Until your brother’s anger against you subsides—and he forgets what you have done to him. Then I will fetch you from there.” (Breishit 27: 44-45)
Yaakov already knew that he would need to remain in Charan, at his uncle’s house, to await Rivkah’s call to return only after Esav’s anger had abated. It is not surprising therefore, that Yaakov promptly chooses a ‘seven-year’ period to remain and work for his future wife. The number seven is a complete, significant cycle of time which would appropriately provide enough time to satisfy his mother’s plan: for Esav to forgive, and for her to send for him. The text also clearly reflects this idea: in the previously mentioned pesukim, Rivkah tells Yaakov to flee from Esav for “ימים אחדים”; and the Torah later records that the seven years Yaakov worked for Rachel – to await his mother’s call – were like “ימים אחדים” – yamim achadim! (29:20)
Additionally, when Yitzchak sent Yaakov away to Lavan’s house, he outlined his own plan for his younger son, saying, “Get up and go to Padan Aram, to the house of Betuel, your mother’s father; and marry there a woman from the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother” (28:2). And similarly, to fulfill yet another parental charge, immediately before Yaakov chooses to marry Rachel, the Torah’s narrative records “and Lavan had two daughters” – the very ‘women’ Yitzchak directed Yaakov to specifically choose a wife from. (29:16)
With this purposefully constructed ‘parental charge-accomplishing’ backdrop in mind, the Torah’s use of the two enigmatic descriptions of Leah and Rachel is now clearly appreciated. The ‘softness’ or ‘tenderness’ (רכות) of Leah’s eyes could be understood as a sensitivity to sunlight. We have already been told that it’s Rachel, the younger daughter, and not Leah the elder, who ventured out to the well, by herself, as the sole shepherdess of the family. Also, later we read about Reuven picking wildflowers for his mother, bringing them back to her while she remains inside. Both of these irregularities are easily explained by Leah’s inability to spend too long in the sun.
Leah’s trait of weak eyes is also specifically contrasted to Rachel’s traits of “beautiful in form and beautiful in appearance” which appear at the end of the same pasuk. The fact that the Torah repeats the word ‘beautiful’ (יפת) conveys that these two descriptions – ‘beautiful of form’ and ‘beautiful of appearance’ are two, distinct traits. And while previously Sarah was described as ‘beautiful of appearance’ (יפת מראה), only Rivkah receives the additional ‘beautiful of form’ (יפת תואר) characteristic. In TaNaKH, the former (מראה) is used to describe physical beauty, an external appearance, while the latter (תואר) is one of physical form and structure. So, not only is Leah physically lacking (in her ability to venture outside), but Rachel is conversely perfectly suited for this outside world – physically capable of managing her physically strenuous shepherdess charge.
This understanding then creates an unexpected ‘pairing’ with the other puzzling descriptions of the two daughters in this section. For, instead of using the ‘older/younger’ (בכירה/צעירה) terminology that the Torah will use later, it described them here as ‘bigger/smaller’ (גדולה/קטנה). The Torah specifically employed a physical description as opposed to a chronological one to purposefully contrast the ‘unexpected’ reality vis a vis these two daughters. For now we are also being told that although Leah is the (physically) ‘bigger’ daughter, she is specifically limited by her sensitive eyes; and despite Rachel being (physically) ‘smaller’, her superior form suitably shoulders her demanding familial responsibilities.
Where else have we seen a “גדול” who was nonetheless relegated to a limited, lesser role, and a mere “קטן” assuming that front-lines, active, ‘outside-world’ position instead? During the very scene that forced Yaakov into this world to begin with – the stealing of the brakhah! Twice, within two different pesukim in that episode, the Torah labels Esav the בנו הגדול and Yaakov as the בנו הקטן: when Rivkah takes Esav’s clothing to disguise Yaakov (27:15) and when Rivkah is told that Esav is ready to kill his deceitful brother and she tells Yaakov to escape (ibid 42). This first pasuk occurs right before Yaakov the smaller brother positions himself to seize a superior role over his bigger brother, Esav; and the second pasuk is recorded right after this usurpation’s success!
And therefore, when it comes time for Yaakov to choose a wife from Lavan’s daughters – the appropriate vehicle to actualize both his parents’ charges upon his escape from Esav – the Torah makes sure we understand that the woman he chooses is a perfect reflection of the very reality he had just achieved, immediately before his arrival in Charan. He, as the ‘smaller’ brother, had just been ‘unnaturally’ charged to assume the ‘bigger’ brother’s role; therefore, he consciously picks the woman – his partner on this unique journey – who represents that same ‘unnatural’ reality: the ‘smaller’ sister, with the ‘bigger’ role! This approach also explains Yaakov’s almost inexplicable continued ‘rejection’ of Leah. It was never a personal or emotional issue, but rather a ‘future role’ issue. In Rachel he saw the perfect partner who reflected exactly who he had become and who he needed to be to play his significant part in the Avraham legacy; in Leah, he could only mark the equation he had dramatically left behind, a personae he needed to reject in order to properly succeed moving forward in his role as the third link in the Avot chain.
 Breishit 42:34 and Melakhim 2 5:14
 Like the Shabbat and Shmittah cycles, for example.
 Unlike Avraham’s very unspecific instructions for his servant when finding a wife for Yitzchak (Breishit 24:4): “כִּ֧י אֶל־אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל־מוֹלַדְתִּ֖י תֵּלֵ֑ךְ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֖ה לִבְנִ֥י לְיִצְחָֽק”
 Breishit 12:11
 See also the differing cow descriptions in Pharaoh’s dream narratives.
 This idea is also reflected in the Midrash’s understanding of Leah’s ‘soft eyes’. The Rabbis state that they were soft and tender from crying because she was destined to be married to Esav: The Bigger son who was rendered ‘less capable’; Leah’s perfect ‘match’.