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Vayeitzei 5768-2007

“How Dare You Accuse Me!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

After working 20 years for Laban, Jacob and his wives decide that it is time to leave Laban and his family. They see no future for themselves where they are, since the wily Laban continuously prevents them from receiving their proper compensation. So, while Laban is away with his sons shearing the flocks, Jacob and his household steal away from Laban’s estate to return to Canaan to establish an independent life for themselves.

Before they depart, scripture tells us (Genesis 31:19): “Va’tig’nov Rachel et haht’rah’feem ah’sher l’ah’vee’hah,” and Rachel stole the teraphim (household idols) belonging to her father. The Torah states that Jacob deceives Laban, the Aramean, by not telling him that he was fleeing. Instead, Jacob and his entire family rise early and cross the river with all their belongings to set out in the direction of Mount Gilead.

On the third day, Laban learns that Jacob has fled. Together with his kinsmen, Laban pursues Jacob, finally catching him on the seventh day at Mount Gilead. G-d appears to Laban in a dream at night, warning him not to speak with Jacob either good or evil.

When Laban finally confronts Jacob, he cries out (Genesis 31:26): “Meh ah’see’tah, va’tig’nohv et l’vah’vee, vaht’nah’hayg et b’no’tai kish’voo’yot cha’rev,” What have you done that you have deceived me and led my daughters away like captives of the sword? Why have you fled so stealthily? Had you told me that you were leaving, I would have sent you off with gladness, with songs, with timbrel and with lyre! You did not even allow me to kiss my sons and daughters farewell. You have truly acted foolishly!

Laban reminds Jacob that he has the power to harm him, but that G-d does not allow him to. Surprisingly, Laban acknowledges that Jacob’s longing for his father’s house may be justified, after being separated from his family for so many years. Laban then expresses particular distress at the fact that someone in Jacob’s party has stolen his gods.

Jacob explains to Laban that he left stealthily because he was concerned that Laban would steal his daughters from him. Jacob recoils, however, at the suggestion that someone in his party has stolen, and confidently cries out, “With whomever you find your gods, that person shall not live! I challenge you to discern before our brethren what is of yours that you find here in my belongings, take it back.” Scripture attests to the fact that Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the teraphim.

Laban thoroughly searches Jacob’s home, but does not find the teraphim that Rachel has hidden. Jacob bitterly responds to Laban’s suspicions and accusations with a deeply moving soliloquy describing his utter devotion to his father-in-law, and the loyal service that he performed for Laban over the many years.

After agreeing on a covenant of non-confrontation, the two parties separate and Jacob begins his way back to the land of Canaan.

The commentators are surprised and perplexed by Jacob’s bold and confident denial to Laban that any of his family members or staff could or would have stolen anything from Laban. Based on the Midrashim, some of the commentators suggest that when Jacob says to Laban, with whomever you find your gods that person shall not live, Jacob was not promising to kill the perpetrator, but rather was praying and hoping that such a person may not live. The Radak (R’ Dovid Kimchi, 1160-1235) suggests that Jacob did not mean that he would kill the perpetrator himself, but that he would place the thief in Laban’s hands for him to deal with the thief. The Akeidat Yitzchak (R. Isaac Arama, 1402-1494, Spain, philosophical-homiletical commentator) suggests that Jacob uttered this curse because he was convinced that whoever stole Laban’s idols had relapsed into idolatry and was therefore deserving of death.

While many of our sages say that Rachel’s act of theft was intended to save her father from worshiping idols, few of them find her action justified. Many are of the opinion that Jacob would not have condoned the theft in spite of Rachel’s good intentions, concluding therefore that she deserved to be punished.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) is particularly impressed by Jacob’s confidence with the members of his family, fascinated that Jacob could be so certain that no small child had taken even a pin to which he had no right. With so many children and servants, how could Jacob be so certain that nothing was taken? After residing with Laban for 20 years, someone might be tempted to take with them a nostalgic “memento.” And yet, Jacob was steadfast in his confidence regarding his family’s honesty.

It’s important for us to remember that, for most of the 20 years, Jacob shepherded Laban’s flocks, not his own. Only after 14 years of work did Laban agree to give Jacob a small number of sheep and goats, and then attempted to deceive him of those as well. After many years of tending the sheep, cattle and herds of Laban, Jacob finally had a flock that he could call his own. Jacob must have been tempted to “borrow” some of Laban’s feed, hay, or straw, or a water bucket or two to use for his own animals. How much more difficult must it have been for Jacob’s sons or staff members not to lay their hands on Laban’s belongings. Think of how difficult it is for office workers not to “borrow” a pen, a pencil, a letter opener, a few envelopes, some message pads or scrap paper from their places of business for personal use. And yet, Jacob was confident. This unusual confidence was due to the fact that he did not leave this matter to chance. It was part and parcel of his educational program for nurturing his children. Petty theft would not be tolerated, any more than other crimes or improper actions.

That Jacob saw ethical behavior and proper breeding as a foremost priority in child rearing is confirmed later, by scripture’s story of Jacob and his sons.

Joseph had been sold by his brothers to Egypt (apparently this act was justified because the brothers felt that Joseph had violated the ethical standards of the family). The brothers come down to Egypt to buy food for the family. Joseph accuses them of being spies, and when they return to Egypt with their brother Benjamin, Joseph sends his servant to accuse the brothers of stealing Joseph’s chalice that Joseph uses to prophecy. The brothers are so certain of each other’s probity that they cry out (Genesis 44:9): “Ah’sher yee’mah’tzay ee’toh may’ahv’deh’chah va’mayt, v’gahm ah’nach’noo neeh’yeh lah’doh’nee la’ah’vah’deem.” With whomever of your servants it is to be found, let him die, and we also will be bondsmen, servants to my lord!

Only a parent who has invested abundant effort to educate his children to ethical living can ever state with such bold certainty that his children would never resort to theft. Only children who were raised with a clear message of ethical and moral living, would be so certain that none of their compatriots would resort to theft. It doesn’t happen by preaching. It doesn’t happen by osmosis. It happens only through modeling. That is what Jacob did for his children, and what the Jewish people are expected to do for their children and for the world.

May you be blessed.