We named our first child Reuben. It was the meaning that appealed: “Behold/See a son”. It described the celebratory moment of a first bursting into our lives with all the anticipation of who he would be and the changes he would bring.
But the name tells a story, of Leah’s marriage and its sadness: “the Eternal has seen (from re’ah) my affliction” and it also means “my husband will love me” (from the end of the word Reu-ben, ye’ehabani, “he will love”). She wills her life through the name of her child, which contains her hopes and anticipations.
But the name doesn’t work for her. She is still trying to gain Jacob’s love with subsequent sons. She gives them names that she hopes will realise a new reality for her family; Shimon, “this is because the Eternal has heard I was unloved and given me this one also” (from shema), and Levi, “this time my husband will become attached to me” (yelaveh) and then Judah, “this time I will praise the Eternal” (odeh).
It’s impossible not to empathise with her. Children are a source of great blessing, but so is a loving relationship. The Torah in its terse attention to Leah’s language conveys that intensely. The hopes contained in the birth of a first child and the shift in focus from couple to family is known to many parents, and Leah was relying on it to feel loved.
Rashi and other traditional commentators suggest Rachel, Leah’s sister, knew that Leah was more righteous, hence her bearing of children. But for us, in reading Leah’s cries of pain, we know that sometimes righteousness is no panacea for unhappiness. She is worthy of much compassion and interest from us as we honour her as troubled matriarch. Through her words she illuminated the complicated joy of family.