The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.” Sartre meant that sometimes people view us from the outside and, without knowing us, judge and categorize us. Instead of seeing us as a subject with an independent internal world, they see us as an object. When this happens, it’s as if who we are inside is stolen from us, and we experience a kind of death or hell.

Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, also made a famous statement about other people, albeit a completely different one: “The other is our mirror.” Showing us another’s fault is Divine providence’s way of helping us become aware that we possess the same fault. The Baal Shem Tov wanted us to stop judging others and instead work on rectifying ourselves.

When we combine these two statements, an interesting new idea is born: If I experience another person as hell, that’s because they reflect some hell existing within me. The other person awakens within me the frightening recognition of my own weaknesses and shortcomings. If I’m unwilling to acknowledge them, I will be filled with anger which I'll direct toward the other. The fire of hell I identify in them will be nothing more than the reflection of my repressed anger at myself.

We Always Marry Two People

In this week's Torah portion, Jacob too has to deal with a threatening other that leads him to do inner work.

Jacob fell in love with Rachel and worked seven years for her. The years passed “like a few days, in his love for her,” among other things because he felt how each day drew him closer to his wedding day. But when he awoke the morning after the wedding, he discovered that he was deceived: “And behold, it was Leah.” Rachel’s father, Laban, had married him to her older sister instead of her.

We all know this story. But Kabbalah and Chassidut suggest an interpretation different from the familiar one. According to Kabbalah, Rachel and Leah symbolize two aspects of one person: Rachel, described as “beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance,” is her more earthly and revealed aspect, and Leah, of whom it is said that “Leah’s eyes were soft,” is her more spiritual and hidden aspect.

With this understanding, we can read the story of Jacob’s marriage to Rachel and Leah in a new way. Jacob symbolizes the “I” of every one of us, whereas Rachel and Leah symbolize the two faces of our spouse: Rachel is the revealed face and Leah is the hidden face.

In other words, Jacob’s marriage to his two wives is an allegory for what happens to us when we get married.

At first, we fall in love with “Rachel,” the revealed, young, beautiful face of our partner. But he or she is also “Leah,” the internal and hidden face. This face is more mature and challenging, and therefore less attractive. However, being hidden we don’t first notice this face, and don’t anticipate having to deal with it.

But sooner or later disaster strikes. It can be a year, a month, or even the morning after the wedding. We look at our spouse one morning, and realize to our shock that “behold, it’s Leah”: They have the exact same properties who we didn’t want!

What’s our first response? Like Jacob, we feel cheated. We want to yell, “I’ve been deceived! I didn’t sign up for this!” Our instinct is to flee.

But if we react with the strength of Jacob, we won’t. We’ll remind ourselves that life is a journey. Leah is our match decreed from Heaven, and we must learn to live with her and love her. It turns out that in order to truly merit Rachel, we must work an additional seven years – and even then Leah will still be in the picture. She is part of our spouse, forever.

More than that: Leah is the principal source of our blessing. Leah bore Jacob most of his children, including Levi, father of the priestly dynasty, and Yehudah, father of the kingly dynasty. In fact, it is Leah, not Rachel, who is buried next to Jacob in the Cave of Machpelah. In many senses, it is she who is truly his eternal partner.

Confronting our Dark Side

Leah was not the first threatening other that Jacob had to deal with. Before her came his twin brother Esau, from whom he was forced to escape. If Jacob symbolizes our conscious identity, Esau symbolizes the dark side of our soul, the subconscious lurking in the shadows. Jacob’s flight from Esau is therefore an allegory for our flight from the unrectified parts of ourselves.

Most intriguingly, Esau and Leah are connected. According to the midrash, Esau was Leah’s original soulmate. This is one reason Jacob was so frightened when he saw Leah the morning after the wedding: She reminded him of Esau, the dark side of his soul.

When Jacob decided not to flee from Leah, it marked the beginning of his confrontation with the aspect of Esau within himself. This prepared him for the confrontation with the angel of Esau – the spiritual root of his dark side – in which merit he was granted his higher name, Israel.


Point to Ponder: If we check the numerical value of the expression “Behold, it was Leah” as written in the Torah (הנה הִוא לאה), we’ll see that it equals that of the word “hell” (gehenom). The hidden, threatening face of the other, from which we want to flee, is exactly the hell of which Sartre spoke.

But there’s also good news: This number also equals that of the famous expression that gave the famous Rabbi Nachum Ish Gamzu his name, “this too is for the good” (gam zu l'tova). If we’re willing to deal with the hell that the other reflects to us, we will discover that it is our greatest source of goodness – our gateway to our higher self.