"Now, seeing that Leah was disfavored, HaShem opened her womb, while Rachel was childless." (Genesis 29:31)
Leah was given to Jacob through trickery. She was brought to his tent veiled and assumed to be Rachel. But Jacob married Rachel as well. We're left with so many questions about Leah. What did her marriage to Jacob look like? How did she feel in this uncomfortable situation? How did her relationship with her sister Rachel change over time? Did she have a relationship with God like Rebecca, or was she kept at a distance like Sarah?
We know that God will give Leah many chances to name children in this story, and in that God gives her the chance to tell her own story to us. Leah names nine children, eight of which (all the men) are explained in this way. But while we can learn about those eight men from their names, we can learn so much more about Leah herself. Through their names, we see her sadness, and we also see her grow as a person. We actually get to know her.
First, Leah is overwhelmed by sadness from being rejected by Jacob, and is begging God for intervention. Reuben is named because "HaShem saw my plight; yes, now my husband will love me" (29:32). Then Simeon: "HaShem heard that I am despised and has given me this one too" (29:33), and for Levi, "Now this time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons." (29:34). This inner turmoil, this family drama, this love triangle is playing out before us in these names. We can feel such softness for this mother who wants so badly to be loved, to be seen, to be heard by her family.
But things take a turn. A fourth child, Judah, shows that Leah is changing her outlook. Why chase a husband who is so unkind? Why not focus on the good energy being brought to you by a greater power? Why give Jacob the attention he won't give her? So Judah is named because "This time, I give thanks to HaShem." (Note, this lineage ends up being the central lineage in later Jewish history).
Rachel at this point offers a surrogate mother for her children to Jacob, her maid Bilhah. She sees her sister as winning a battle she cannot, even though she is winning the battle Leah desperately hopes for. "A mighty rivalry have I waged with my sister; moreover, I have prevailed" (30:8) is explained for Naphtali, Bilhah's second son.
Leah gives her maid, Zilpah, as surrogate as well, bearing two children. But she takes a different tactic. Still focusing on the places in her life that bring her joy, but perhaps making jabs at her sister as she continues to win the child rivalry. Gad and Asher are named because "Fortune has come" (30:11), and "How happy I am - yes, women will call me happy!" (30:13). Leah has given herself joy, or at least claimed it out loud, through her family and not through her contentious relationship with husband and sister.
But the drama is never far. Leah finds her way into Jacob's tent. Literally buys it: with Mandrakes, sold to Rachel to help her conceive her own child (30:14-17) in exchange for a night with Jacob. This small moment shows us the extent to which Jacob has rejected and ignored Leah over the years. She literally has to buy her way in to his tent, to his life, to his love. In this period, she names her two final male children Issachar and Zebulun. "God has given me a reward for giving my maid to my husband" (30:18) looks at her relationship and good standing with God, not with Jacob (and is maybe a dig at Rachel who did the same but remained childless). And finally, "God has given me a fine gift. Now my husband will give me the gift due me, for I have borne him six sons" (30:20). These final two names show a side of Leah we hadn't seen until now. Where Rachel was vengeful and angry in her naming, Leah remained optimistic, joyful, and thankful to God. Here, she remains steadfast in her gratitude to God, but explicitly not to Jacob. With jabs at Rachel's childlessness, boasts of her blessings from God, and direct rebukes at her husband's shameful behavior towards her, Leah has the upper hand, and a new sense of gravity and gravitas.
Her final child, Dinah, is named but without explanation. The name is similar in etymology to Dan, Rachel's first child, meaning judgement. Many commentators and midrashim (including modern Midrash like the Red Tent by Anita Diamant) see this lack of explanation as a chance to fill the gap between this war of children and a time when Rachel and Leah live in harmony. Just after Dinah is born, Rachel gives birth to Joseph. And when we next see them, Jacob tells the two of them together that he wants to leave their father's house, and they answer in harmony, as one (31:14-16). It's easy to imagine, or at least I like to imagine, that Dinah holds the key between this reconciliation. Some justice, some judgement, has been handed down, a daughter to bridge the gap between two sisters.
Each name, each child, is a window into the life of Leah. Each child is an entry point into a year of her life with a husband who doesn't love her and her sister as his favored wife. We don't get so many windows into any other character, besides perhaps Moses, that show us exactly what they were feeling and wanting to project into the world about their feelings.
This window into Leah's life makes me feel very close to her, and closer to Rachel too. I feel like I know them. I feel like they are whole people, women I can see myself in, and who I can see our story through. Leah is a woman who is complex, who is angry and grateful, who has a tough life but a lot of blessings, and who wildly has an incredibly close and distinct relationship with our God. She is the mother and namer of more than half of our ancestral tribes, and as they live on, they tell her story.