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Yaakov's Oath and Rachel'sTerafim

  • Rav Yehuda Rock
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

This parasha series is dedicated
Le-zekher Nishmat HaRabanit Chana bat HaRav Yehuda Zelig zt"l.






Dedicated in memory of my sister, Szore Rivka Kitay, of Lakewood, New Jersey, whose fifth yahrzeit fell on 
the 6th day of Kislev this year – from those who remember her.


This shiur is dedicated in memory of Israel Koschitzky zt"l, whose yahrzeit falls on the 19th of Kislev.  May the world-wide dissemination of Torah through the VBM be a fitting tribute to a man whose lifetime achievements exemplified the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.



Yaakov's Oath and Rachel's Terafim

By Rav Yehuda Rock


In this shiur we shall address two events in the parasha, which at first glance would seem altogether unconnected: Yaakov's oath to God at the beginning of the parasha, and Rachel's stealing of the terafim in the last third of the parasha.  We shall come to see that there is a strong connection between these two events – a connection which is expressed in Parashat Vayishlach.


Let us begin with an important introductory comment.  Among the exemplary personalities in the Torah, whom the Sages hold up as models worthy of our admiration and emulation, we find two types.  One group includes the perfectly righteous.  These characters are ideal, perfect people.  But there are also righteous people whose paths were not always perfect, but ultimately they repented.  The classic example of such a character is King David, who "established the yoke of repentance." These, the Sages taught, were even greater than the perfectly righteous.  In this shiur we shall see that Yaakov and Rachel belong to this group.


I.  Yaakov's oath

The oath that Yaakov takes is described as follows (28:20-22):

"Yaakov made an oath, saying:

If God will be with me, and guard me on this way that I go, and give me bread to eat and a garment to wear, and I return in peace to my father's house –

Then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone which I have set as a monument shall be God's house, and all that You will give me I shall surely tithe for You."


Let us begin by examining the expression "The Lord shall be my God" (28:21).  It would seem from these words that Yaakov is making his faith in God conditional upon God protecting him and providing him with sustenance.  Chazal reject such a possibility (Sifri, Devarim piska 31): "Could it be possible that Yaakov, our patriarch, said, 'And [if God] gives me bread to eat and a garment to wear, then the Lord will be my God – and if not, I have no God'?! [Surely not,]… what the text is teaching us is [that Yaakov means,] 'And the Lord shall be my God' – that He shall place His Name upon me, such that no unworthy descendants shall emerge from me, from beginning to end…."


In other words, the expression "The Lord shall be my God" is not Yaakov's vow to be fulfilled, but rather part of the description of the condition.  The same idea is expressed by both Rashi and the Rashbam in their commentaries on the verse.


However, there can be no doubt that on the simple, literal level, the expression is part of the vow itself, and as such is dependent upon the preceding condition.  The Ramban upholds this view, commenting as follows:


"'The Lord shall be my God' – this is not a condition, as Rashi would have it, but rather the vow itself.  What it means is: If I return to my father's house, I shall serve the One God in the chosen land…."


In other words, the expression in question is indeed part of the vow itself, and as such is dependent upon the condition that Yaakov has set down.  The Ramban's solution to the problem of the seeming equivocation of faith is to interpret the words "The Lord shall be my God" not in the sense of accepting God's Divinity in general, but rather as a specific Divine service, related to God's Name (the Tetragrammaton) as the Ramban understands it, and which is relevant only in Eretz Yisrael.  This being the case, Yaakov's service will obviously be dependent on him "returning safely to his father's house."


Clearly, the Ramban's interpretation here is bound up with his overall philosophy, according to which there is a fundamental, qualitative difference between Divine service in Eretz Yisrael and service of God outside of the land (Parashat Re'eh).  But beyond this there seems to be an exegetical problem with the Ramban's proposal that the entire condition rest on its conclusion – "And I return in peace to my father's house," explaining this condition as a technical requirement of actually living in the land, rather than viewing this conclusion as one element of all the Divine help that Yaakov hopes for.  Yaakov asks not only simply to return, but to return "in peace," and it would seem that this return must be understood in the context of all the other types of help that he requests: "If God will be with me, and protect me… and grant me… and I return in peace…." Thus, we return to our original question: how is it that Yaakov predicates his acceptance of God's Divinity upon the protection and help that God will grant him in his own endeavors?


Expressions speaking of the Lord being someone's God usually appear in the Torah not in the context of human speech (as it is in our case – "The Lord shall be my God"), but rather in the context of Divine speech ("I shall be your God," etc.).  An analysis of the meaning of this expression in these contexts shows that it refers not to mere acceptance of the authority and yoke of God's Kingship, but rather to the development of a connection of a more profound type between God and man.  In the context of Avraham's circumcision, God promises him that He will maintain such a condition with the nation of his descendants, in Eretz Yisrael (Bereishit 17-7-8): "I shall establish My covenant… to be God for you and for your descendants after you.  And I shall give to you and to your descendants after you the land of your sojourning… and I shall be their God." In later generations, God set down the plan for the Exodus from Egypt with a view to developing this connection that was promised to the forefathers, and in order that the memory of the Exodus would actively establish this relationship in the consciousness of the nation (Shemot 6:4-7): "I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov… and I also established My covenant with them… and I have remembered My covenant.  Therefore, say to Benei Yisrael: I am the Lord, and I shall take you out from under the suffering of Egypt… and I shall take you unto Me as a nation, and I shall be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God who has taken you out from under the suffering of Egypt…." The Divine Presence pervades the Mishkan as a mechanism for preserving the consciousness and memory of this relationship (Shemot 29:43-46): "I shall meet there with Benei Yisrael, and it shall be sanctified with My glory… and I shall dwell in the midst of Benei Yisrael, and I shall be their God, and they shall know that I am the Lord their God Who took them out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them; I am the Lord their God." It is in this light that we should understand the expression "I am the Lord your God," which is repeated over and over in the second part of Sefer Vayikra: since I, the Lord, became your God, and now I, the Lord, am your God (i.e., I, the Lord, have a special connection and bond with you, and I dwell in your midst), therefore you are obligated to follow a code of behavior appropriate to this connection.  (It must be noted that the traditional cantillation usually places a different emphasis – "I am – the Lord your God.")


It is against this backdrop that Yaakov's words should be understood.  Yaakov does not make his faith in God, or his acceptance of the yoke of His Kingship, conditional with regard to fulfillment of God's explicit commands.  What Yaakov is making conditional is his active involvement in a close relationship with God: a commitment to having a deeply rooted sense of being a servant of God, with a constant awareness of his connection with God.  Yaakov also enumerates some practical expressions of this active involvement as being conditional, for instance turning the monument I Beit El into "God's house" and tithing his income for God: "The Lord shall be my god, and this stone which I have set as a monument shall be God's house, and all that You will give me, I shall tithe for You."


How does the Torah evaluate this condition? Is it legitimate – since the relationship in question is a very profound bond that is not regarded as self-evident – or is there still some element of Yaakov's vow that is improper? In order to answer this question, we must look at the broader context of this vow.


In the case of Avraham and Yitzchak we find that, in the wake of God's revelation to them, they built altars at the sites of the revelation and "called in the Name of God."  In other words, they made the altar into a central place of Divine service through sacrifice (we elaborated on this in our shiur on Lekh-Lekha).  A similar situation comes about at the beginning of Parashat Vayetze: God reveals Himself to Yaakov, and Yaakov – recognizing that "this can only be God's house, and this is the gateway to heaven" (17) – builds not an altar, but a monument (18).  Only in Parashat Vayishlach, following Yaakov's stay in Charan and upon his return to Eretz Yisrael, do we read (35:1): "God said to Yaakov: Arise, go up to Beit El and dwell there, and make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from Esav, your brother… So Yaakov came to Luz which is in the land of Canaan, which is Beit El… and there he built an altar."


It seems, then, that the building of the altar – accompanied by the Divine service of offering sacrifices – is what Yaakov meant when he vowed, "This stone, which I have set as a monument, shall be God's house."  In the wake of the revelation to him, Yaakov indeed recognizes the site as the place of the Divine Presence ("This can only be God's house"), and the monument marks the place that is destined to be "God's house" in practice.  Yaakov pours oil over it so as to sanctify it and to mark it as "God's house" in practice, in the future – but he makes the establishment of the place as a place of Divine service in practice dependent on God's protection and his own return in peace to the land.  This conduct stands out in prominent contrast to the conduct of Avraham and Yitzchak in similar situations.


In Parashat Vayishlach, following the construction of the altar in Beit El, we are told (35:9-15): "God appeared to Yaakov again upon his return from Padan Aram, and He blessed him… And God went up from him at the place where He had spoken to him.  And Yaakov placed a monument at the place where He had spoken to him, a monument of stone, and he poured a drink offering over it, and it poured oil on it.  And Yaakov called the name of the place where God had spoken to him Beit El (the House of God)." This is quite puzzling. In Parashat Vayetze, Yaakov already set up a monument there and called the name of the place Beit El (28:18-19).  Why must he place a monument again in the same place, and why does he need to once again call the place Beit El?


The Rashbam attempts to answer this question by explaining, "'God appeared to Yaakov again' – after he left Luz, which is Beit El, he also called the name of the other place Beit El, as he goes on to explain." In other words, there are two different places that are both called Beit El.  However, in proposing this explanation, the Rashbam is forced to invoke a journey that is mentioned nowhere in the parasha; furthermore, it would seem that the emphasis on revelation "again" is meant to connect this revelation to the first one, which took place when Yaakov set off for Padan Aram.  As Rashi comments: "'Again' – for a second time in this place; once when he left, and again when he returned."


The Ibn Ezra proposes a different solution to the problem of the repeated erecting of the monument: "It may be that the meaning of the word "va-yatzev" (he erected) is 'he had erected.'" In other words, the description here is not telling us about a new event whose chronological place in the development of events is at this point in the narrative; rather, the Torah is – for whatever reason – going back and describing the erecting of the monument that took place when Yaakov set off for Padan Aram.


This interpretation gives rise to two difficulties. First, if indeed the Torah is referring back to an event that took place in the distant past, why does the text not adopt the usual formula for the pluperfect tense – "ve-Yaakov hetziv," preferring instead the normal syntactical format that is used for chronological descriptions – "va-yatzev Yaakov"? Second, there is a certain difference between the two events: in the description at the beginning of Parashat Vayetze, we are told only that Yaakov set up a monument and poured oil over it; in Parashat Vayishlach, there is also a pouring of a drink offering.  If the Torah was indeed describing the same event over again, it would be strange that specifically the second description would be the more detailed one.  Thus, we come back to our original question: why must Yaakov set up a monument twice, and why must he twice name the place Beit El?


Apparently, Yaakov had to repeat the act of setting up the monument and naming the place because the first time around it was not done properly; Yaakov had to correct his first actions by performing them over again, this time in the proper way.


What was wrong with his first actions? At first, Yaakov established the site as a place that was marked (by means of a monument) and dedicated (by means of anointing it with oil) to be "God's house," but he made the establishment of the place as a site of Divine service in practice conditional upon God's protection and his own safe return.  The Torah is telling us that this sort of condition, making a "deal" with God, as it were, concerning Divine service, is improper.  A person who has the opportunity to serve God must do so willingly and wholeheartedly; he should not use the opportunity as a means of obtaining a desirable outcome of Divine Providence.  In contrast to the vow that "All that You will give me, I shall surely tithe for You" – which simply cannot be fulfilled without God giving him something to tithe, making the place into "God's house" through worshipping Him is something that is appropriate and proper in the wake of God's revelation to him and Yaakov's marking of the site as a place destined to be "God's house."  There is no justification for using this occasion and opportunity as a tool for obtaining favors from God.


For this reason, Yaakov had to renew the identity of the site as a place of the Divine Presence, after already having built an altar there and worshipping God.  Now Yaakov turns the place from one where Divine service is used to fulfill one's needs, to a place where Divine service is a clear, unconditional, given state of affairs, and where Divine service leads to God's revelation and His blessing.  In this way Yaakov expresses his recognition that Divine service must be the basis for a relationship with the Divine Presence, rather than a later result that is conditional upon such a relationship.


Attention should be paid to an important point: Yaakov is not commanded to establish the monument over again, or to rename the place.  It seems that he does so of his own initiative, immediately following the second revelation at Beit El.  Yaakov, it seems, understood that this second revelation gave him a second chance, an opportunity to correct his previous actions, and he took advantage of it.  This, then, was a process of teshuva, a correcting of his previous behavior. 


II.  Rachel and the terafim


(The subject that I discuss below is addressed in a broader context in my article in Daf Kesher, Shemot 5758, vol. 635 – "Li-Demuta shel Rahel," and Rav Amnon Bazak takes the discussion further in his article in Megadim 28.)


Once again – some introductory words.  The most fundamental difference between service of God and idolatry is that an idolater recognizes multiple divinities, while a servant of God recognizes One God, Creator of the heavens and the earth.  However, there is also a difference in the attitude and the manner of service: a pagan divinity, who is not the Only God, is not all-powerful.  Its power is limited by the powers of the other gods.  There are forces that are not subject to its authority, and it may be influenced by them.  Pagan gods belong to the framework of nature.  They do not create the heavens and earth, but rather are subservient to the laws of heaven and earth.  They are forces that not only influence, but also are influenced.  Thus, they may be activated by means of certain actions: words of sorcery or prayer, performance of defined acts of witchcraft, etc.  The same applies to divining, consulting mediums etc.: a person activates these pagan systems not only in order to achieve his practical aims, but also to obtain information.  God, in contrast, is the Creator of heaven and earth; He is not subservient to any sort of system, but rather acts on His own will.  One may speak to Him, and He hears; one may behave in a meritorious way and He will reward the righteous, but not out of being influenced; rather He acts out of wisdom and great kindness in extending His beneficence to those who love Him.


Sometimes a person who does regard himself as a servant of God, and recognizes His creation and ownership of the world, experiences a blot of pagan perception in his faith.  He tries to influence the heavenly systems by means of his actions: he prays – not out of submission to God, but rather as trying to have some effect on God's ways.  He performs meritorious acts – not because God desires them, but rather with a view to attaining his objectives.  He believes in God and not in pagan deities, but his faith is not whole and perfect.  It is blemished by a mechanistic, pagan approach to God's reign over the world.  The Torah lists numerous prohibitions concerning such service: it forbids consulting diviners, soothsayers, wizards, etc.  It seems that Rachel, our matriarch, stumbled in this sin, and ultimately repented over it.


When Yaakov's family leaves Lavan's house, we are told (31:19): "Lavan went to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father's terafim." For what reason did Rachel steal these idols?


Rashi quotes Bereishit Rabba: "Her intention was to separate her father from idolatry." However, as the Ibn Ezra points out: "If this were so, why did she take them along with her, rather than burying them somewhere along the way?" In other words, if all that Rachel wanted was to protest and combat idolatry, she should have discarded the idols immediately.


The Ibn Ezra goes on to propose a different interpretation: "What seems most likely is that Lavan, her father, knew astrology, and she feared that her father would consult the signs in order to find out in which direction they had fled." According to the Ibn Ezra, Rachel was not trying to protest or combat idolatry; she stole the terafim for a different reason – to prevent her father from finding out about their escape.  Therefore, we need not conclude that Rachel was expressing opposition to idolatry itself, and hence we need not necessarily expect her to have discarded the idols at once.


If we accept the above explanation – suggesting that Rachel had (or expressed) no view, either negative or positive, with regard to the terafim, it would seem that she transgressed in holding onto them and not discarding them.  But the Ibn Ezra's explanation presents some difficulty, since it assumes details that have no basis in the verses themselves.  Apparently, he is correct in concluding that there was no intention on Rachel's part of protesting, preventing or halting her father's idolatrous practices.  However, we are led to the opposite conclusion – Rachel wanted the terafim for herself.  When someone steals something, the most basic motivation is that he wants the thing for himself.  Terafim represent, in the Torah, a magical means of knowing the future, and there were people – such as Lavan – who went so far as to deify them (31:30).  But their primary use was for telling the future, and not necessarily as deities for worship (see Ramban on 31:19).  Therefore, we cannot suggest that Rachel worshipped them as her father did; we conclude that she wanted them merely for the purposes of divining.


Essentially it seems that Rachel did accept the God of Yaakov, and her appeals concerning childbirth were to Him.  But her fundamental approach was one that had been molded and steeped in magical practices, and this influenced the manner in which she related to Divine Providence.  Rachel saw no real contradiction between worshipping God and divining through the terafim.  From the context of the parasha it seems that the use of the terafim was meant to somehow aid Rachel's efforts to give birth.  [Rachel's approach, as exemplified here, finds expression in other details of the story, too; see my article in Daf Kesher referred to above.]


(It is interesting to note that one generation later, when Yosef recreates for his brothers their situation when they sold him, this time with Binyamin in the role of victim, he leads them to think that Binyamin has stolen the royal goblet that he uses for divination.  The brothers, it appears, justified their treatment of Yosef by regarding him as the "son of Rachel – who stole the terafim."  Yosef tests whether they will abandon Binyamin, who has "stolen" the goblet of divination, in the same way that they cast him out of the family as the son of someone who had stolen vessels of divination.)


Immediately after Yaakov is commanded to go up to Beit El, we are told: "Yaakov said to his household and to all who were with him: Remove the foreign gods that are in your midst… and they gave Yaakov all the foreign gods that were in their possession… and Yaakov buried them under the oak that was at Shekhem" (35:2-4).  The Torah testifies that within Yaakov's household there were foreign gods, and that all of them were handed over to Yaakov and buried.  This, then, must have included Rachel's terafim.  Perhaps the words "to his household" hint to Rachel and the terafim, as the Midrash Sekhel Tov suggests (Baber edition, p. 198).  In any event, even if the text is not hinting specifically to her, she is certainly included in the scope of the operation.  Thus, at this point she abandons her sin.


III.  Yaakov, Rachel, and Binyamin


Yaakov and his wife, Rachel, both transgressed in similar ways, and the repentance of both of them is recounted in the same narrative.  Obviously, there is a difference in the severity of their respective wrongdoing, but the root of the sin is the same. Both tried to use forces and vessels with a view to influencing Divine Providence – Rachel through use of the terafim; Yaakov through his vow to serve God in Beit El.  The repentance of both of them is recounted in the story of the ascent to Beit El in Parashat Vayishlach (35:1-15): Rachel gives up the terafim as part of the preparations for the journey, and in Beit El Yaakov repairs the identity of the place and the status of the Divine service that takes place there.


Immediately following the story of the ascent to Beit El, in Parashat Vayishlach, we read the following (35:16-20):


"They journeyed from Beit El, and it was when there was but a short way to come to Efrata, that Rachel went into labor, and she had a difficult birth.  And it was, as she struggled in labor, that the midwife said to her: 'Fear not, for this is another son for you.' And it was as her soul departed – for she died – that she called him Ben Oni.  But his father called him Binyamin."


It is clear from the context that the meanings of the two names are connected with the circumstances of Rachel's death (since the names are given not immediately after the tidings – "This is another son for you"; rather, we are first told, "And it was as her soul departed – for she died -…").  Let us examine the significance of these two names.


First – Ben Oni.  The word on usually means "strength."  This is clearly not relevant here, for – as noted – the meaning of the name appears to be related to the tragic circumstances of the birth.  In Bereishit Rabba (82,9) we read: "'Bar tza'ari' (The son of my sorrow) in Aramaic."  In other words, "Ben Oni" is a name in Aramaic meaning "the son of my sorrow."  The Ramban rejects this interpretation, insisting that the name cannot be an Aramaic one, since the names of all of Yaakov's other children are in Hebrew.  Both the Ramban and the Ibn Ezra explain the name as being related to aninut – mourning.  This interpretation, too, is problematic, since mourning is the reaction of the living to a death, not the feeling of the deceased himself just before his death.


It would seem logical, then, to understand the name as being derived from the word aven - אָוֶן, meaning vanity, or falsehood.  This word is used specifically with reference to the meaninglessness of terafim: "For terafim have spoken falsehood, and the wizards have foretold lies, and the dreams tell falsehood; they comfort vain" (Zekharya 10:2).  Likewise, "Rebellion is like the transgression of witchcraft, and stubbornness is like falsehood and terafim" (I Shemuel 15:23).  "Aven," then, is related to the word "ein," or "ayin" (denoting negation).  It appears that Rachel understood that her suffering and her death in childhood were a result of her sin concerning the terafim, in particular, and the vanity and falsehood of her attempt to influence, through magic means, the heavenly system in general (and even though she had repented, she still needed atonement).  Rachel gave voice to this understanding in the name that she gave to her son, thereby expressing regret for her actions and accepting Divine justice.  [As to the results of Rachel's repentance, see my article mentioned above.]


[It is interesting to compare Rachel's death with the death of the wife of Pinchas, son of Eli (I Shemuel 4:19-22).  The language is similar ("At the time of her death, those standing about her said: Do not fear, for you have given birth to a son"), and there, too, the narrative describes a woman experiencing a difficult childbirth, being told that she has borne a son, and naming the child as she dies.  There, too, the name – I-kavod is bound up with sin and punishment (although not her own, but rather the punishment of Israel).  The sin in that instance – treating the Ark of God's Covenant as a magical means of attaining victory in war, is thematically related to the sin in our parasha.  This comparison is developed by Rav Amnon Bazak in his article in Megadim 28.]


What is Yaakov's intention in naming his son "Binyamin"? "Yamin" (literally, "right") would seem to imply an oath or vow, since a person "vows by his right hand."  The name "Binyamin," then, means "son of the right hand" – or "son of the oath."  The reference here is to Yaakov's oath at the beginning of our parasha.  It seems that Yaakov understands that were it not for the negative educational example that he set for his family by means of his vow – in which he tried to enlist the heavenly system to obtain certain ends from Divine Providence – Rachel would never have thought of bringing the sorcery from the house in which she had grown up into Yaakov's home.  Therefore, he accepts educational responsibility for Rachel's sin and the punishment that is meted out to her in its wake.



Translated by Kaeren Fish