My name is Leah. There is a music to the sound that I have grown to like, and I have come to associate my name with my individual qualities. But, it wasn’t always that way. When I was in preschool, around age 4, the children in my neighborhood made fun of my name.
As an elementary school aged child, I associated my name with the way it made me feel when my mother was trying to get me to do things, or stop doing things. I have a distinct memory of standing in one of my dance classes and thinking that the girls who had the name Stacy or Jennifer were lucky because that was more “normal” and sounded better than Leah.
I also internalized some of what I learned about Jacob, Leah and Rachel whose story is told in this week’s Torah portion. Leah was the one with the “weak eyes.” Rachel was the beautiful one who Jacob loved. “Not Leah” is what I heard. Who was beautiful? “Not Leah.” Who was loved? “Not Leah.”
This seemed to go with the way I felt about myself in my Jewish day school where we learned this story. “Not Leah” seemed to fit the way I felt among my classmates. I was different, set apart in some way. While I still felt somewhat at home in my school, I felt like an outsider elsewhere. Other names could be found in personalized items in the toy store. “Not Leah.” Other friends seemed to have certain kinds of toys or games. “Not Leah.” Other friends when trick or treating on Halloween. “Not Leah.” Every time I was corrected or criticized which to me seemed incessant, it reinforced the feeling of “Not Leah.” Who is worthy, deserving of praise? “Not Leah.”
It was spending time with extended family that gave me some appreciation of my name. I was named for my great grandmother who had been the first matriarch to live in the family bungalow where we spent summers with extended family. I heard lots of stories of “Grandma Leah” and the name came alive in a special way. “This is what Grandma Leah” used to do, this was “Grandma Leah’s”, etc. Even my dad’s voice softened when he talked about his grandmother. Grandma Leah was so beloved there were two of us named for her!
Over many years, I have reframed the way I see the world, shed the little judges who sat on my shoulders correcting and criticizing with the words I’d heard from teachers and parents. As I carved a path for myself as an adult, doing the things that were meaningful for me, shedding external expectations and living more and more according to how I felt myself to be in the world, I grew to like my name more. I heard Leah, and I heard the love in my husband’s voice. I heard “Leah,” and I heard the love and respect that elementary school children have for their teacher. I grew to associate my name with what I gave to the world instead for what it seemed to think of me.
The more I have oriented myself to thinking of others and sharing in the world, the more I have concentrated on all who are “Not Leah” the sweeter the sound of my name to me.
I wonder if the Biblical Leah could have learned to see herself by what she had to offer the world, through what she could give and contribute to the world, and not through the lens of competition with her sister, or the lens of “Not Leah” how her story might have changed. Now when I think of Leah in the Torah, I feel compassion for my namesake and wish I could share my life lessons with her.