In this week’s Parashah we encounter the well-known “bride swap.” Ya’akov falls in love with Rachel and agrees to work for Lavan for seven years to marry her, but is deceived and ends up marrying Leah. Afterward, Ya’akov agrees to work for another seven years for Rachel, and the whole ordeal finally comes to a close. The Torah then records God “seeing” that Leah is unloved—“VaYar Hashem Ki Senuah Leah,” “Hashem saw that Leah was hated” (BeReishit 29:31), so He blesses her with a son. After giving birth, Leah names her son Reuven, “Ki Ra’ah Hashem BeOnyi,” “For Hashem saw my suffering” (29:32).
Ramban (29:31 s.v. Ki Senuah Leah) offers two possibilities for what Leah’s suffering exactly is, and why she names her first son Reuven.
Ramban’s first interpretation is that the word Senuah actually means hated — Leah is actually hated by Ya’akov because she tricked him. Granted, Leah had noble intentions, as she was trying only to avoid marrying Eisav HaRasha; nevertheless, she deceived Ya’akov. Now that she has a son, Reuven, she hopes that Ya’akov will see that God supports her actions by granting her Ya’akov’s first child.
The second suggestion is the simpler one. Ya’akov doesn’t necessarily hate Leah, but the Torah’s style is to say that in a case in which a person has two items, the more preferred item is called Ahuvah, loved, while the less preferred item is called the Senuah, hated. Obviously, Leah is the Senuah, because Ya’akov originally wanted to marry Rachel, not Leah. Even though she isn’t hated, per se, Leah is very sensitive, and therefore is embarrassed that she is not liked as much as her younger sister. Therefore, when Leah names her son Reuven, she is hoping that Ya’akov will “see” that she now has a “son” – “Re’u Bein” – and this will tip the scales in her favor.
Seforno (29:32 s.v. BeOnyi), however, interprets this episode as follows: Although Leah was a participant in the trickery of Ya’akov, she was not a willing participant. She was forced to go through with this by Lavan, who was a wicked, deceitful person, and who wanted Ya’akov to agree to work for another seven years for his “real” wife, Rachel. Ya’akov hates Leah, even though she did not play an active role in the trickery, because he does not know that she had been forced to marry him. Furthermore, even if he did know, his hatred for her is nonetheless justified. Who would want to marry someone he doesn’t like, and to make matters worse, work for fourteen difficult years just to marry his desired wife?
Seforno then compares Leah’s predicament to a Sotah, an accused adulteress, who is proven innocent. Leah was unjustly accused of agreeing to trick Ya’akov, but in fact, she was forced into it, just like a Sotah can be accused of being an adulteress though she really is not one. The Torah states that a woman who is accused of being an adulteress, but is proven innocent by drinking the Sotah water, merits having children (see BeMidbar 5:28). Leah, after being falsely accused, is granted a son, whom she names Reuven, because God sees that she was being unfairly accused and consequently hated unjustly.
According to Seforno, Reuven’s name is most appropriate, because even though Ya’akov is not at fault for hating Leah, the bottom line is that she is being hated unfairly. Thus, seeing that God “sees” her suffering and gives her a son, Leah names her son Reuven. She hopes that as a consequence, Ya’akov will begin to love her, because he will understand that God granted her a son because she was being accused falsely, just like a Sotah who is granted a son after being accused falsely.