“The hardest thing in America is to be what one is softly.”

Leon Wieseltier


We insult people by calling them soft. Softness is regarded by some as a limitation. It implies that someone is not assertive or aggressive. He or she may be hesitant, shy, afraid of confrontation, easy to manipulate or lack strength of character. But there’s a softer side to soft. Soft is a compliment; it implies someone who is gentle, thoughtful, not worn down by life’s harshness. It refers to those who speak tenderly, without the need to dominate or exclude. If you want people to pay attention, don’t yell. Speak softly.


Soft might also inspire us to think of people the way we might describe an old couch, a piece of fabric or a pillow: comfortable. Unlike loving gestures, aggression can feel rough, harsh and unyielding – it’s emotional sandpaper. Softness is inviting and warm. It feels safe and open. Something soft is not sharply delineated. In linguistics it describes a sibilant rather than a guttural sound.  


In Hebrew, the word for soft is “rakh,” which ironically ends with a harsh guttural noise. In a noted biblical use of the term, it is employed to describe one of our matriarchs: “Leah had soft eyes, but Rachel was of beautiful figure and form” (Genesis 29:17). The way the verse is translated is a study in contrasts. Soft eyes are compared negatively to beauty of form, implying some defect in Leah that made her unlovable. This might explain Jacob’s natural attraction to Rachel and his feeling of injustice at having to wed Leah first as a ruse of his father-in-law.


One midrash regards Leah’s soft eyes not as the fate of nearsightedness or being cross-eyed but a description of her emotional state. She was to be wed to Esau, according to this midrash, and she wept continuously out of righteousness. She did not want to be married to this crass hunter.


A different reading might posit this verse as a description of two types of beauty: inner and outer. Leah possessed tenderness. Rachel had the magnetism of external good looks. Tender eyes show compassion and curiosity, connectedness and depth. It is this softness that Jacob needed because his life was symbolized by stones: those he slept on, the one he removed from a well and those he used in his pact with Lavan. Hardness is mitigated by softness.


The Wieseltier quote above is from his small and powerful book Against Identity. “The thinner the identity, the louder,” he writes there. Loudness can be a function of superficiality. “It is never long before identity is reduced to loyalty.” Wieseltier offers us the strange and counterintuitive understanding that the less you know about your nationality, ethnicity or religion, the more you express the veneer of pride. Loud cheering can mask ignorance and incivility. Authentic caring often involves a level of nuance or sophistication that is hard to fabricate or manufacture in absence of knowledge. Today, in politics and entertainment, we have come to believe that the louder someone is, the more credible. Being loud, however, is often a reflection of self-absorption and an incapacity to take in the other.


The author Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.” What would it take to be softer? What would you and others gain by having a softer tongue and softer eyes?

Shabbat Shalom