Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra: Weak Eyes, Weak Wisdom (Vayeitzei)

The Torah Text

When Leah is first introduced, we already know Jacob loves her sister Rachel. But could he also fall for Leah? Apparently no, and the only detail we get about Leah is that her eye’s are rakkot (Genesis 29:17). What could that mean, and is it a clue to Leah’s physical appearance or emotional state? Or is it simply a detail, a smoking gun that means nothing in the end?

Ibn Ezra’s Teaching

רכות. כמשמעו ויש שואלים למה היו כן בעבור שחשבו שמחשבות השם כמחשבותיהם וכל הנבראים ראויות צורתן להיות שוות. ובן אפרים אמר שהוא חסר אלף וטעמו ארוכות והוא היה חסר אלף

Genesis 29:17 WEAK. Rakkot (weak) is to be taken literally. Some ask, why were Leah’s eyes weak? They raise this question because they believe God’s thoughts are like their thoughts, and they think that all people have to be formed alike. Ben Efraim said that an alef is missing in the word rakkot (weak), its meaning being arukhot (long). However, Ben Efraim himself was missing an alef. (Translation Strickman and Silver)

Reflections for the Path

We see here Ibn Ezra at maximum snark levels. Others interpret rakkot in various ways. Rashi (1040-1105 CE) builds on a rabbinic tradition that no detail is irrelevant and cites a story about how Leah had been crying because she was supposed to be married to Esau. Sadly, her eyes, weak from crying, did not appeal to Jacob, and so although Leah marries the preferred brother (itself a problematic aspect of the story), she does not ever find love from either of them.

Ibn Ezra has no patience for those who invent wild stories, or add other details that are not present in the text. The takedown of Ben Efraim is savage – if we take Ibn Ezra’s suggestion and remove an alef from the sage’s name, it becomes Ben Parim, literally “son of cows.”

Interestingly, some scholars (such as Nahum Sarna in the JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis) speculate that the root meaning of the name Leah is related to an Akkadian word meaning “cow”.

Although I doubt Ibn Ezra had access to such an idea, the result is that he calls Ben Efraim a descendant of Leah, perhaps with weak eyes and weak wisdom, unable to see the true interpretation.

Ibn Ezra alludes to Isaiah 55:8, where God exclaims, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways My ways!” Although he does not really explain why the detail needed to be introduced, he seems to consider it simply a description of Leah. I appreciate the assumption that God deliberately forms humans in diverse ways, and delights in that fact, in contrast to the impulse to want conformity of appearance, opinion, and action that can sometimes become toxic in our communities.

For more on Abraham ibn Ezra:
1. Read my introduction.
2. Listen to ibn Ezra’s opening prayer poem for his Torah commentary.
3. Explore the five paths, ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah commentary.