The Gods of Theft

  • Rav Michael Hattin

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

The Gods of Theft

By Rav Michael Hattin


Parashat Vayetze is a dramatic narrative of trial and setback, trust and eventual success. Ya'akov, banished from home and hearth and the promised land of his birth by the murderous wrath of his brother 'Esav, flees the familiar landscape of Be'er Sheva and plods northeastwards towards unknown Charan. Darkness falls and the solitary figure settles down for the night, his mind still reeling from the abrupt and anguished parting from his beloved mother and aged father, and still racing with the terrifying thoughts of his brother's unveiled vows of vengeance. How unexpectedly have things turned out! His father's blessings of material achievement and spiritual triumph, of land and legacy and love of God, all of it so hesitatingly secured at the forceful behest of his insightful mother, now seem like a faded and fleeting memory, a transitory dream and nothing more.

Ya'akov sleeps fitfully, his brow fevered, his breathing labored, until God appears to him in a comforting vision of a ladder that connects heaven and earth, as silent angels gracefully and rhythmically ascend and descend upon its rungs. The Deity reassures the slumberer that He will be with him, that His protection will be upon him, that He will never leave him and that one day Ya'akov will return. Rising on the morrow with the heaviness lifted from his heart, Ya'akov journeys onwards, soon arriving at a well surrounded by shepherds and their flocks. There he meets and tearfully embraces his beautiful cousin Rachel, and it is during that charged and cathartic moment that he commits his future to hers.


Entering the avaricious employ of his uncle Lavan, Ya'akov spends the next twenty years laboring mightily to secure wives and flocks, children and herds, his incremental achievements all the while held in check by the wily Aramean. In the end, the two have an inevitable parting of minds and ways, and Ya'akov, fearing the worst, attempts to escape. Fortified by another Divine vision calling upon him to return home, he furtively gathers his family and flocks and flees westwards Canaan bound, as Lavan is temporarily absent and anywise preoccupied with the shearing of his sheep. But Ya'akov's escape is not to be uneventful, for when Lavan receives word of his son-in-law's defection, he immediately gives chase. Pursuing Ya'akov with the self-serving single-mindedness that is his most abiding trait, unsavory Lavan traps the hapless patriarch at Mount Gil'ad and promptly unleashes what surely constitutes one of the most disingenuous diatribes ever uttered:

Lavan said to Ya'akov: what have you done by deceiving me (literally "stealing my heart")? You have led away my daughters like captives of the sword! Why did you hide your intentions to flee and deceive me (literally "steal from me")? Why didn't you tell me? I would surely have sent you off with joy and song, with the drum and the lyre! You did not even leave me to kiss my sons and my daughters, surely now you have acted foolishly! It is within my power to harm all of you, but the God of your fathers said to me last night: "be careful that you do not speak to Ya'akov either good or bad." Now, you have certainly gone away, for you have surely yearned to return to your father's house. But why have you stolen my gods?! (Bereishit 31:26-30).


No less than three times, Lavan accuses Ya'akov of theft: you have stolen my heart, you have stolen me, and you have stolen my gods. Interspersed among these three serious allegations of larceny are further claims of patent wrongdoing: you have taken my daughters captive, you have denied me my children (and grandchildren), and (most ludicrous!) you have deprived me of the opportunity to send you off with gladness and mirth. The effect of the whole is to publicly and perniciously cast Ya'akov in the most unfavorable of lights: you are a liar and a cheat, a swindler and a charlatan! If it were up to me, I would punish your wrongdoing, but for the fact that your God seems to sanction if not encourage it!

Now anyone who has followed the tribulations of our gentle forefather during the course of Parashat Vayetze knows how utterly baseless and unfounded are the charges contained in Lavan's invective. How faithfully and loyally Ya'akov has served his uncle (31:6), even as the latter constantly changed the terms of his employment (31:7), all the time attempting to secure more at Ya'akov's expense. Beginning with the unjust substitution of Leah for Rachel under the wedding canopy (29:23-26) and continuing uninterrupted for a period of twenty years, Lavan has done everything in his power to relieve Ya'akov of what was rightfully his. Never has the Aramean lost an opportunity to cheat his nephew and son-in-law out of his wages (30:28-35), to unjustly hold him responsible for accident or loss (31:39), or to impose conditions of employment that were cruel and unreasonable (31:40). In short, never has Lavan been anything, to his son-in-law or even to his own daughters and grandchildren, except a selfish, insensitive and uncharitable miser (31:14), a rude and dishonest deceiver (31:15) and an incorrigible cheat (31:16). But true to his name, Lavan has always performed his evil work under the carefully cultivated guise of civility and propriety (29:13-14), uprightness and honesty (29:15) and genuine social concern (29:26). What a master of manipulation, a genius of deceit and an expert of exploitation!


There is, however, one small but glaring inconsistency with this otherwise perfect reading of genuine integrity (Ya'akov) versus surface veneer (Lavan), understated and uncelebrated honesty (Ya'akov) versus public persona and whitewashed wrongdoing (Lavan). It concerns one of Lavan's accusations, the only well-founded one of the lot, a matter of most troubling material facts: the theft of his so-called "terafim" or household gods. Recall that Lavan had concluded his tirade against Ya'akov with the most damning accusation of them all: "why have you stolen my gods?!" (31:30). Ya'akov, completely unaware of Rachel's earlier deeds, denies the claim vehemently, even inviting Lavan, in an act of unthinkable decency, to search through all of his possessions. But there is no denying the truth, for the Torah itself indicates that on the eve of their hurried departure from Lavan's homestead, "Rachel stole the terafim that were her father's" (31:19). This act of petty pilfering is then magnified by her own concealment of the matter, for when Lavan searches her tent, she surreptitiously spirits the gods into the saddle of the camel and then promptly places herself upon it, all the while begging her father's indulgence for the failure to rise in his presence with tales of discomfort due to the "way of women" (menstruation).

The questions raised by the episode are myriad, the answers less. What are the mysterious terafim and why does Rachel steal them? Why does she then hide them from Lavan, all the while keeping Ya'akov blissfully unaware of her deed? Significantly, the classical commentaries were almost unanimous in their explanation of Rachel's motives.


Representative is the view of the Rashbam (12th century, France):

[She took them so that] they would not inform Lavan that Ya'akov desired to escape, as the verse states "there shall be neither efod nor terafim" (Hoshe'a 3:4), "for the terafim speak vanity" (Zekharia 10:2). The ancients were wont to divine by them…(commentary to 31:19).

Here the Rashbam relies on other Biblical references in order to explain an otherwise unknown phenomenon. Elsewhere in the Tanakh, terafim are presented as some sort of idolatrous images (prepared in human form) that were used for prognostication (see in particular Shoftim 17:5; 18:1-4; Yechezkel 21:6). Now Lavan halready presented himself earlier in the narrative as a self-styled diviner (Bereishit 30:27), for when Ya'akov asks for payment for his services, Lavan remarks that he had ascertained through divination that Ya'akov's hard work has been the source of his household's blessing (compare to Yosef as Viceroy claiming to have uncovered the thief of his silver goblet through the art of divination, in Bereishit 44:5). In other words, says the Rashbam, Rachel feared that as the plans for their escape took shape and gathered momentum, Lavan would rely upon his occult skills and the instrument of the terafim in order to uncover the plot and then prevent them from leaving.

While the explanation of the Rashbam is intriguing, adopting it introduces more serious problems. Are to we assume that Rachel, a budding monotheist and mother of Israel, believed in the efficacy of discredited idols and feared her father's "powers" of prognostication? And if indeed this was the case, then her plan was in any case utterly ineffective, for very soon after their escape Lavan uncovered the plan (through more conventional and reliable means – "it was told to Lavan on the third day that Ya'akov had fled…" – Bereishit 31:22), pursued them, quickly overtook them, and threatened them with destruction precisely because they had stolen those very gods. So much for thwarting her father's villainy.

While there remains some doubt concerning the true nature of terafim and we cannot state with certainty what may have been Rachel's real motives, one thing is clear: Lavan regarded those objects as his precious household gods. He himself describes them as such (31:30), and one can only assume that when he later solemnly swears an oath in the name of the gods of Nachor (31:53), it is the terafim that he visualizes in his mind's eye. That being the case, perhaps we may offer a different interpretation. As we saw earlier, Lavan, while always presenting himself as a paragon of virtue and civility, is actually anything but. The real Lavan, when shorn of his carefully crafted and cultivated public persons, is a more menacing figure indeed. For twenty years he has been engaged in underhanded schemes to cheat Ya'akov at every turn. Never have his sullied hands been far from attempting some new and outrageous act of theft and all at the expense of his honest and sincere son-in-law. One may go so far as to say that the gods that Lavan worships (for what man does not seek the blessings of the gods for his criminal and immoral acts?), insofar as such a man may be said to engage in worship, are the gods of theft and avarice. To them he pays homage and before them he prostrates himself in supplication.


Now the time comes for Ya'akov and his household to flee. Ya'akov justifiably feels that he will not be able to secure Lavan's permission to leave and to return to Canaan his birthplace, and certainly (contrary to the latter's later vehement protests) he will not be sent off with the drum and the lyre, and joyous songs of farewell. Gathering his wives and his children around him, he explains their need to escape; Lavan's own daughters, knowing their father all too well, offer no words of protest but only cries of encouragement. Journeying forth from Lavan's homestead and looking back one final time at the location where all of them had spent twenty turbulent and pain-filled years, Rachel decides to steal the terafim "that were her father's" (31:19). Considering the matter from the perspective of her own motives at best yields ambiguity, but viewed from the perspective of Divine involvement, the matter is crystal clear. The gods of theft have received their just deserts, for they have been stolen in kind.

Soon Lavan catches them and unleashes his fury. Accusing Ya'akov of every indiscretion, he aims to expose his son-in-law as a common criminal while presenting himself, in contrast, as an upright champion of virtue. And the onlookers side with him! Hasn't Ya'akov fled under cover of darkness, hasn't he stolen Lavan's gods? What else has he taken from Lavan's household while the latter has been away shearing the sheep? But now, Ya'akov takes up the challenge, allowing his father-in-law the unheard-of opportunity to search all of his things! Of course he does not know that Rachel has taken the terafim nor may he (from the perspective of Divine orchestration), for his protest here must be absolutely sincere and truthful.

In the meantime, Rachel has relocated the terafim to the saddle of the camel, and in a final and fitting end to their ignominy, she gingerly places her bottom upon them. What an act of indiscretion towards the gods, but these are no gods of goodness and compassion, but rather of avarice and greed. Thus it is that the terafim are not only stolen but denigrated and humiliated as well. In the final act of the drama, Rachel offers a polite explanation for her inability to rise, a proper and civil response that must have caused her father to gnash his teeth in indignation, for he himself has rehearsed a similar script innumerable times! How often has Lavan himself secretly stolen from patient Ya'akov, all the while explaining his motives to the masses with the most sugared of words and phrases? But now, he has been defeated, his gods of theft themselves stolen, and his accusations exposed for all to see as utterly groundless. Lavan finds NOTHING of his goods among Ya'akov's possessions, neither gold nor silver, neither documents nor deeds, not even a simple needle and thread for the patriarch to sew up his tattered cloak. And Rachel his own daughter has turned the tables against him, matching his spars blow for vicious blow.


Now it is Ya'akov's turn to speak:

Ya'akov became angry and strove with Lavan, saying: 'What is my transgression and iniquity that you have pursued me so? You have handled all of my things but what have you found that is from your house? Place it down before your relatives and mine, so that they might judge between us! During the twenty years that I was with you, your sheep and goats never lost their young, nor did I consume a single ram from the flock. I never presented you with an attacked animal but rather made up the deficiency myself, for so you demanded. Whether stolen by day or by night, you held me responsible. By day I was consumed by scorching heat and by frost at night, and the sleep was snatched from my eyes. For twenty years I have been in your household – for fourteen years I served you for your two daughters, and six years for your sheep, and you changed my wages ten times! If the God of my ancestors, the God of Avraham and the Dread of Yitzchak, had not been with me, you would have sent me away empty-handed. But God saw my plight and the effort of my hands, and last night He rendered judgment!' (Bereishit 31:36-42).

Lavan, finally exposed for what he truly is, is momentarily silent. Though he will try once again to emerge with the upper hand, he knows, as do all of the onlookers, that he has lost. He has been bested by the simple sincerity of his son-in-law, and the terafim have been bested as well. Again, Divine orchestration guides the events, for in the course of his response, Ya'akov unwittingly alludes to the kernel of the entire matter. Ya'akov states that "I never presented you with a torn animal but rather made up the deficiency myself, for so you demanded. Whether stolen by day or by night, you held me responsible." Here, Ya'akov lays out the evidence of Lavan's unfairness, for no shepherd should be made to pay for animals that have been unexpectedly attacked by wolves or wild dogs. No shepherd should be held accountable for animals stolen at night, when darkness falls and predators lurk. But Lavan HAS held Ya'akov liable and the loyal patriarch HAS acquiesced!

Unbeknownst to himself, Ya'akov here employs a wordplay that goes unnoticed by all except for Lavan and Rachel, the father and daughter who had earlier locked tense glances over the disappearance of the terafim. In Biblical Hebrew, a "torn animal" is called a "terefa." Though spelled slightly differently than terafim (the formwith a "tet," the latter with a "tav"), the similar sound is unmistakable to sensitive or else culpable ears. "I never presented you with a TEREFA," states Ya'akov, "but rather made up the deficiency…STOLEN by day or by night, you held me responsible!" As Lavan hears these impassioned words, he can also hear God's own, spoken through the agency of the patriarch: Here you are, old man, bothered with the theft of terafim, with stolen gods that you worship so faithfully. Don't you realize that you yourself are the thief and the liar, that it is not futile terafim that are at stake but rather the unforgivable seizure of a poor man's honest wages? For the theft of your precious terafim you are willing to commit violence, but what about the real theft that has gone on in your household for the past twenty years?"

Our Parasha thus presents us with a brilliant study in sincerity and deception, appearances and reality, true virtue and feigned facades. Often, we are led astray by what we see or hear to make hasty and unwarranted judgments, but the God of Justice knows better. In the end, deceit begets deceit and falsehood is eventually exposed for what it is. The man and the gods that champion dishonesty as an instrument for self-advancement discredit themselves and, in the end, suffer the same fate as their victims. Lavan the Aramean is not remembered for his acts of care and compassion, nor for his jovial grandfatherly demeanor nor even for his selfless deeds of righteousness.

Our Sages understood the matter only too well when they proclaimed in the Haggada that "One must go and learn what Lavan the Aramean attempted to do to Ya'akov our father, for Pharaoh only decreed the death of the males, but Lavan attempted to destroy everything!" And, sadly, there is even today no shortage of Lavan's protege's, filling to overflowing the world's halls of power with their protests of innocence, even as they maliciously heap scorn upon the blameless. Of course, there are also the more local varieties of Lavan, those that taint every community with their hypocrisy, and perhaps (though we shrink from the thought) even a small Lavan or two that dwells within every human heart encouraging us to surreptitiously seek our fortune at someone else's expense. Like Ya'akov of old, those that are sincere and kind (and patient!) will prevail in the end. In the meantime, we continue to look to the Torah for inspiration and for guidance, and for the truest indication for how a man's accomplishments ought to be measured. The God of Israel demands of us no less.

Shabbat Shalom

For further study: In years past, we have investigated the parallels between the story of Ya'akov in Lavan's house and the story of Israel in Egypt. In broad terms, both accounts speak of welcoming hosts, eventual oppression, threats of decimation, exodus, murderous pursuit and Divine intervention to save. If our above analysis is correct, then we may add one more parallel to the list: the degradation of Lavan's terafim, symbols of immoral and unjust polytheism, suffer the same fate as the "gods of Egypt" that are laid low by God's mighty plagues on the eve of Israel's departure: "And I shall pass through the land of Egypt on this night, and I shall smite all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast, AND I SHALL EXECUTE VENGEANCE UPON ALL OF THE GODS OF EGYPT, FOR I AM GOD" (Shemot 12:12).