Parshat Vayeitzei 5783: Yaakov, Rachel and Lavan’s “terafim”

Shalom Friends;

This year’s Parshat Vayeitzei vort is being sponsored by Aryeh and Lisa Koenigsberg and family of Ramat Beit Shemesh dedicated lilui nishmas for Aryeh’s grandparents: Chaya Perel bas Arieh and Yissachar Dov ben Yisrael. To the Koenigsberg family, many thanks for your sponsorship and for your continued kindnesses.

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Moshe Burt
skype: mark.burt3


Parshat Vayeitzei 5783: Yaakov, Rachel and Lavan’s “terafim”

by Moshe Burt

In Parshat Toldos, Torah relates:

“Yaakov was a wholesome man…” (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 25, posuk 27 as rendered to English in the Artscroll Stone Chumash)

The Artscroll Stone Chumash provides commentary about Yaakov (page 127):

Yaakov. …The Torah does not specify who gave the name, Either Hashem commanded Yitzchak to give the name, or Yitzchak gave it on his own. The name is a play on the word “eikev,” meaning heel, because Yaakov grasped Eisev’s heel. (Artscroll Stone Chumash citing Rashi)

Yaakov… was morally wholesome [Ish Tam], saying what he thought and never being duplicitous, and spending all his time in the study tents of Shem and Eiver. (ibid)

If this author understands correctly, Yaakov did not allow this “Ish Tam” character trait to dominate him. Seemingly, he knew when and where to act otherwise, such as from his demand for the birthright from Esav in exchange for the lentil soup. These traits surely seem to have been inculcated to Yaakov as a result of Rivka Imeinu’s nurturing. We later learned that when Yaakov introduced himself to Rachel upon removing the stone from atop of the well, he told her (citing of Sefer Breish’t Perek 29, posuk 12 as rendered to English in the Artscroll Stone Chumash):

“‘…He[Yaakov] was her father’s relative.”

Artscroll Stone Chumash provides a commentary on Sefer Breish’t Perek 29, posuk 12:

“‘…He was her father’s relative.” [literally, brother] In addition to the plain meaning that Yaakov introduced himself to Rachel as her relative, Rashi cites the midrashic interpretation; He [Yaakov] intimated that should Lavan try to cheat him, he could defend himself as being Lavan’s brother in deceit; but if Lavan dealt honorably, Yaakov would act with all of the integrity expected of the son of Rivka. Or HaChaim elaborates that Yaakov was surely not threatening to match Lavan’s thievery. Rather, he meant to say that he would defend himself strenuously, but only within the law.

In the above context, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, in “Unlocking the Torah Text”, Sefer Breish’t (page 150) summarizes events toward the conclusion of our Parshat:

After Yosef’s birth, Yaakov informs Lavan of his intention to return to Canaan with his family. Lavan convinces Yaakov to remain and work for wages. Six years pass, during which time Lavan continuously attempts to cheat his nephew.

At the end of the six-year period, Yaakov tells Rachel and Leah that Hashem has commanded him to return with his family to Canaan.

The members of Yaakov’s family gather their belongings and flee without Lavan’s knowledge. Rachel secretly steals her father’s house idols [terafim]. After three days, Lavan discovers Yaakov’s escape and pursues him and his family, overtaking them at Har Gilad.

Lavan and Yaakov exchange harsh words, Lavan searches unsuccessfully for his idols, and Yaakov and his uncle finally agree to part ways.

Rabbi Goldin now provides a commentary on a dream experienced by Yaakov which leads to the family leaving Lavan and returning to Canaan (ibid, page 163):

…This… dream is not recorded directly as it occurs. We learn about it only secondhand when, at the end of twenty years in the house of Lavan, Yaakov tells Rachel and Leah that the time has come to return to Canaan. In the course of the discussion Yaakov says:

“And it was at the time of the mating of the flock that I raised my eyes and saw in a dream: And behold all of the goats mounting the flocks were ringed, speckled and checkered. And an Angel of Hashem said to me in the dream, ‘…Lift up your eyes and see that all of the goats mounting the flocks were ringed, speckled and checkered; for I have seen all that Lavan is doing to you. I am the G’d of Beit El where you anointed a pillar and where you made Me a vow; now arise, leave this land and return to the land of your birth. (Rabbi Goldin renders to English Sefer Breish’t, Perek 31, posukim 10-13)

But there is more to the Lavan/Yaakov confrontation. “The Sapirstein Edition: The Torah with Rashi’s Commentary,” Sefer Breish’t (pages 350-351) renders to English the Torah text and Rashi’s commentary with a footnote as Lavan overtook Yaakov and his family:

“‘Now — you have gone because you longed greatly for your father’s house; but why did you steal my gods?’ Yaakov answered and said to Lavan, ‘…. With whomever you find your gods, he shall not live… ‘ (Yaakov did not know that Rachel had stolen them.)”

[Rashi’s commentary on posuk 32:] “He shall not live.” It was from that curse that Rachel died on the road.

Footnote 5 on posuk 32: Breish’t Rabbah 74: 4, 9: Had Yaakov said, “He shall die,” Rachel would have died immediately. “He shall not live” implies that he will die in the near future, but not immediately. Thus, Rachel died on the road. (citing Maskil LeDavid) Alternatively, “He shall die” would have meant, “I shall have put him to death”; “He shall not live,” on the other hand, is a curse. (citing Gur Aryeh; Be’er BaSadeh.)

So, the big question here is, Why did Rachel steal Lavan’s idols?

“The Midrash Says” by Rabbi Moshe Weissman (Sefer Breish’t, page 300) provides citings indicating:

When Rachel stole them [the idols], she had a two-fold goal in mind.

1/ She hid them L’Sheim Shemayim, saying, “How can I go away and leave the old man to serve his abomination?”
2/ She wanted to prevent the terafim from revealing to her father word of their flight.

Although Rachel’s motives in stealing the idols were praiseworthy, she was nevertheless punished for the grief she caused her father. As a result of her actions, Yaakov’s curse that whoever had taken the idols should perish was fulfilled, and she died during Binyamin’s birth and was not privileged to raise her son.

Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni’s “Studies in the Weekly Parashah,” Sefer Breish’t (pages 182-184) provides several additional commentaries:

…Rashbam and other commentaries… state that the theft of the terafim was meant to insure that Lavan would not find out that Yaakov had fled.

Rashbam brings proof of the ability of the terafim to tell the future from… Zecharyah (10:2), “The terafim have spoken vanity.” But if that is so, and if, as Rashi states, Rachel intended to wrest her father away from idol worship [avodah zora], it is surprising she didn’t tell Yaakov about the theft. The fact that she did not tell Yaakov led him to tell Lavan, “By whomever your gods are found, shall not live” (Rabbi Nachshoni’s rendering to English of Sefer Breish’t, Perek 31, posuk 32), and according to Chazal, that is the reason why Rachel died on the way.

In the Torah, we are only told of the theft of the terafim as a fact and no more… Lavan’s complaint, “Why have you stolen my gods?” (Rabbi Nachshoni’s rendering to English of Sefer Breish’t, Perek 31, posuk 30) seems somewhat ludicrous, coming from a boor who believed in a god that could be stolen.

Ibn Ezra, though disagrees with this [the above] interpretation. If that was the case, why didn’t she simply throw them away or bury them someplace? ….Ibn Ezra thus explains that the idols were like zodiacal charms. Rachel was afraid that if she left the idols, her father could use them to find out in which direction Yaakov had fled, and that was why she stole them. She did not dispose of them on the way, because they were not actually idols that were worshiped. Ramban, along the same lines, says that they were an instrument used for telling time.

Ramban… holds that the terafim were used for telling time, but magicians used them for their magic, and would employ them to tell the future…. Aram, the home of Lavan, was a place filled with witchcraft. Bilaam also came from Aram, and it appears that Lavan was also a magician, as he said, “I divined.” (Rabbi Nachshoni’s rendering to English of Sefer Breish’t, Perek 30, posuk 27) [Rabbi Nachshoni cites Targum Yehonasan on Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 22, posuk 5 where Lavan and Bilaam are identified as one and the same person.]

Rachel took from Lavan the tools he used to do his magic, but for what purpose? Was it because she was afraid of the terafim, or was it to have her father stop worshiping idols? Ramban does not answer that question. According to him, the terafim in themselves were not bad. They were only a tool for telling the hours…

But Zohar, Targum Yehonasan, Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer and others hold that the terafim were actual avodah zora… They say that the idol was a firstborn son that had been killed and embalmed. A certain potion was placed under the tongue, and then the idol would tell the future.

Ramban, Rabbeinu Bachya and others, though, hold that Rachel was trying to frighten her father away [when Lavan sought to search her person] through the impurity (tumah) of niddah…. Rabbeinu Bachya explains in Parsha Tazria… when Rachel told her father that she was a niddah, he avoided entering her tent.

In any event, the theft of the terafim by Rachel is an unclear episode in the Torah, of whose reason we are not sure.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin concludes, in “Unlocking the Torah Text”, Sefer Breish’t (pages 171-173):

Having successfully survived his tribulations in exile, Yaakov has become aware of his own capabilities and responsibilities.

The Torah’s message is clear. Man, when he fulfills his responsibilities here on earth, stands higher than the angels themselves. Yaakov, having survived the challenges of the house of Lavan, returns spiritually triumphant to his own home. To mark Yaakov’s accomplishments, and to greet him on the way, heavenly angels welcome him.

Angels who simply exist as an extension of a perfect G’d, are, by definition, themselves perfect. Only man, of his own free will, can aspire to and battle towards perfection. While he may not fully reach that goal, the very struggle, in Hashem’s eyes, raises him above the angels.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them, that the thrice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes and the oft-destroyed Yeshiva buildings in Homesh be rebuilt, all at total government expense; due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. Baruch Hashem that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard is now in his second year at home in Eretz Yisrael and embarking on a new chapter in his life. May Esther Yocheved bat Yechiel Avraham have an aliyah in Shemayim and may her spirit and memory continue to lift Jonathan to at least 120 years. May the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of eight years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. And may we soon and finally see the total end to the Communist Chinese corona virus pandemic and all like viruses. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nei Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.