“Deceit, More Deceit and Teraphim

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, recounts the entire 20 year sojourn of Jacob in the house of Laban. After meeting beautiful Rachel at the well and falling deeply in love with her, Jacob works for Rachel’s father, Laban, for seven years, in order to earn her hand in marriage. At the last moment, wily Laban switches brides, and Jacob discovers that he has married Rachel’s sister, Leah. Jacob works for another seven years for the right to marry Rachel, and is given Bilhaah and Zilpah, Rachel and Leah’s handmaidens to be his wives as well. During the years that Jacob works for Laban, his four wives bear eleven children, the last of whom is Joseph.

During the many years that Jacob serves as keeper of Laban’s flocks, Laban frequently attempts to cheat Jacob out of his wages. Jacob consults with his wives, and together they decide to leave Laban’s house and return to the land of Canaan. Before leaving Laban, scripture records that Rachel commits an act of theft. (Genesis 31:19) “Va’tig’nov Rachel et hat’rah’phim ah’sher l’ah’vee’ah,” and Rachel stole the Teraphim (see below) that belonged to her father.

Knowing that Laban would probably prevent him from leaving, Jacob takes his entire family away while Laban is busy shearing his sheep. Seven days later, Laban catches up with Jacob and his family at Mt. Gilead. That night, G-d warns Laban in a dream not to harm Jacob. Laban accuses Jacob of deceiving him, leading his daughters away like captives, and complains that Jacob did not even allow him to give his daughters and grandchildren a proper farewell. Laban’s final complaint is (Genesis 31:30): “Lah’mah gah’nahv’tah et eh’lo’hoy?” Why did you steal my gods?

Jacob, of course, defends himself, telling Laban that he fled because he did not trust Laban, and feared that Laban might steal his wives from him. In a moment of great impetuosity, Jacob tells Laban that (Genesis 3:32): “With whomever you find your gods, he shall not live!”

Laban then conducts a thorough search of all Jacob’s possessions. When he enters Rachel’s tent, Rachel excuses herself for being unable to get up from the camel saddle, under which she has hidden her father’s Teraphim. Furious at Laban for falsely accusing him of stealing, Jacob finally tells Laban off for having taken advantage of his honesty and devotion for so many years. Laban then proposes a peace treaty, and Jacob and his entourage proceed to the land of Canaan for a reunion with Jacob’s family.

It’s fascinating to see how often the theme of deceit is repeated in both parashiot, Toledot and Vayeitzei. Isaac deceives Avimelech, the king of Gerar, by telling him that his wife, Rebecca, is really his sister. Esau deceives Isaac, his father, making him think that he is a truly righteous and religious person. Rebecca and Jacob both deceive Isaac, as Jacob masquerades as Esau in order to steal the blessings. Laban deceives Jacob by switching brides on him, and again deceives Jacob by taking away his hard-earned wages that was due Jacob for serving as Laban’s shepherd. Jacob, in turn, deceives Laban, utilizing his knowledge of animal husbandry to insure that the flocks produce only spotted and speckled sheep, that by agreement, would belong to Jacob. And, finally, Rachel deceives her father, Laban, by stealing his Teraphim.

It has been proposed that Rebecca sends her beloved son Jacob to Charan to purposely subject Jacob to Laban, the great con-artist of the ancient Near East. In Charan, Rebecca hopes that Jacob, (Genesis 25:27) the “Ish tam yoshev ohalim,” the innocent dweller in tents, will learn how to defend himself from the likes of Laban. It has also been suggested that when Jacob sees how easy it is to be victimized, he finally realizes that the only way to live life properly is through honesty and truthfulness.

There is an interesting ongoing debate among the rabbis and scholars about exactly what “Teraphim” were. Most commentators say that they were idols that people customarily kept in their homes for worship. Some scholars suggest that one of the reasons that Laban was so angry with Jacob, was that without his idols he was without protection.

Our rabbis are, however, reluctant to attribute negative motives to Rachel’s thievery. They therefore state that Rachel stole the Teraphim to prevent Laban from worshiping idolatry. An alternate suggestion offered is that since the Teraphim were a means of divination, Rachel feared that by consulting the Teraphim, Laban would learn about her family’s plans to flee. Nachmanides (the Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) suggests that the word “Teraphim” comes from the root of the Hebrew word meaning “weak,” alluding to the weakness of the idolatrous powers of prognostication. The Zohar (the basic work of Jewish mysticism, attributed to the 2nd century sage, R. Simon bar Yochai and his disciples) suggests that the word Teraphim comes from the root of the Hebrew word for “obscenity,” implying that the Teraphim were objects of obscenity and filth. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) suggests that Rachel hoped to wean her father from idolatry, by showing that if these supposed “gods” lacked the capacity to protect themselves against theft, how could they possibly protect their owners from harm?

Despite what might have been her good intentions, Rachel pays a terrible price for her deceit. And although Jacob did not intend to curse Rachel, she dies at a young age in childbirth and is not buried together with the other patriarchs and matriarchs in Hebron, but is instead buried on the way to Efrat, near Bethlehem.

Words seem to play a primary and central role in the story of Jacob and his family. Blessings, curses and deception are frequently repeated themes that impact greatly on the life of the patriarch Jacob and his family. The struggle to create a “Chosen People,” is a never-ending battle to find truth, to behave faithfully and to live honestly.

May you be blessed.