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Leahs eyes were soft while
Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance.
Commenting on the word rachos Rashi explains that Leah feared that she would be forced to marry Eisav. This was because it was well known that Rivkah had two sons and her brother Lavan had two daughters. Everyone assumed that these two sets of cousins were ideal for each other. It was further assumed that the older brother would marry the older sister and the younger brother would marry the younger sister. Leah the older daughter who was entirely righteous was greatly distressed with her perspective wicked groom, the older brother Eisav and therefore cried. The posuk alludes to this by describing Rivkah as one who had soft eyes.
Interestingly, the Targum has an entirely different interpretation. The Targum translates the word rachos as yaayyan which means beautiful. The posuk thus compliments Leah as having beautiful eyes. However, this leaves us to infer that the only thing that was beautiful about Leah were her eyes. This is in sharp contrast to Rachel whom the posuk describes as completely beautiful.
However, if we take a closer look at the Torahs description of Rachel we will notice that with regard to her as well the Torah is not completely complimentary. The posuk specifies that Rachel hayisah beautiful, which is translated as, Rachel was beautiful. There is an emphasis on the past. This stands in contrast to the Torahs description of Leahs beautiful eyes where this emphasis is omitted. Furthermore, if we examine the Torahs description of Sarahs and Rivkahs beauty, there too, the Torah does not emphasize that it was something that was. The emphasis of Rachels beauty as something that was, intimates that it was temporary and did not endure. On the other hand Leah remained with permanently beautiful eyes. Indeed, the phenomenon of ephemeral physical beauty vs. the permanent beauty of the eyes is common even today.
In summery, we see that the Torah in a single posuk compliments both Rachel and Leah. Each compliment has a downside. Leah is complimented as having permanently beautiful eyes. The downside is that this implies that nothing else about her was beautiful. On the other hand, Rachel is complimented as being entirely beautiful. The downside is that the wording of the posuk hints that that it was only temporary.
Using this interpretation let us take a new look at a well-known Gemara. The Gemara (Kesubos 16b) relates a dispute between Beis Hillel and Beis Shamai concerning the proper method of praising a newlywed bride. Beis Hillels opinion is that one should praise the bride as beautiful and graceful. Beis Shamai disagrees and opines that one should praise her for what she is. From the ensuing give-and-take of the Gemara, it appears that we are discussing a bride that is not truly beautiful. The simple interpretation of Beis Hillel is that for the sake of peace we bend the truth a bit and praise her as completely beautiful. Beis Shamai disagrees and opines that we must adhere to the absolute truth; therefore, we must be careful not to lie even slightly. As for praising the bride, we do the best we can without exaggerating.
This interpretation of Beis Hillel and Beis Shamai is difficult. If it is true that we are dealing with a bride that is not beautiful, what justification can Beis Hillel give for allowing us to lie? In addition to being unethical with such praise, whom are we fooling? If the bride is clearly not beautiful, it would be a mockery to praise her as beautiful. Likewise, according to Beis Shamai if we will praise only a single quality of the bride doesnt that imply that there is nothing else good to say about her? Does this praise not qualify as an insult?
In attempt to answer these difficulties let us suggest that the Gemara is really discussing a bride who is beautiful according to all the standards of the word. It goes without saying that if the bride were not beautiful then both Beis Hillel and Beis Shamai would take into consideration the sensitivity of the bride and the ethics for speaking falsely. Yet, even here where the bride is truly beautiful they also disagree. The question here is what should we emphasize when praising the bride. Should we praise her beauty, which is only ephemeral, or focus on a permanent quality that will endure for the rest of her life. By focusing on a single quality we need not be concerned that there might be insulting implication because all can clearly see that she excels on all levels. Beis Hillel opines that we follow in the Torahs example of Rachel. Although her beauty was described as only something that was temporary, nevertheless this is how the Torah chose to praise her. On the other hand, Beis Shamai disagrees and feels that we should follow the example of Leah. The Torah praises her with a permanent single quality.
Perhaps the dispute between Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel revolves around the exact purpose of praising the bride at her wedding. Beis Hillel believes that the primary purpose of giving praise is to provide enjoyment and satisfaction to the groom and bride now. Thus, even though the qualities that we praise her are fleeting, it does not matter. Because they exist now, we may praise her with these qualities now. Beis Shamai disagrees and believes that the primary purpose of praising the bride is so that the groom and bride can for the rest of their lives reflect on this moment and derive satisfaction. This can only be truly accomplished if the praise given is something that will always remain true.
We are familiar that in all disputes between Beis Hillel and Beis Shamai we generally follow the opinion of Beis Hillel as Halacha. The commentators explain this is because Beis Hillel is generally lenient whereas Beis Shamai is strict. We, who are presently spiritually weak, are not yet ready to adhere to the strict rulings of the Beis Shamai and therefore settle for the more lenient rulings of Beis Hillel. The commentators inform us that in the end of the days when Moshiach comes, and we are elevated to a higher spiritual realm, we will be ready for the strict rulings of Beis Shamai and we will follow those opinions exclusively. It can be suggested that in a homiletic sense our dispute here between Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel with regard to the method of praising a bride precisely illustrates this idea.
When the groom is young and immature he tends to seek what is enjoyable for the moment without taking into account the consequences. When a young immature man finds his bride he likes to hear that she is like Rachel who is described as completely beautiful but pretends not to hear the word was. The young immature groom is satisfied to follow the opinion of Beis Hillel and settle for what is beautiful now. However, as he matures, grows old and approaches the end of his days he is forced to accept the opinion of Beis Shamai, which emphasizes the truly permanent qualities of the bride.
In conclusion let us note that that the dispute here concerns only the proper method of giving praise. However, in seeking qualities of a perspective spouse, there is an undisputed Gemara. The Gemara says that one should check the eyes of his perspective spouse. If they are beautiful then one not need worry about anything else.We may ask why does the Gemara focus specifically on the eyes? Perhaps the Gemara is referring symbolically to the permanent nature of the eyes. The Gemara is telling us to look for qualities that will endure forever, like intellect, righteous lineage, and education. We are warned not to seek shallow ephemeral qualities such as wealth and beauty.