The story of Rachel’s theft of the terafim, the idols1 of her father, as reported in Bereishit 31:19,2 is somewhat of an enigma to the commentators. Many details of the story are unclear. The most difficult dilemma is the ethical evaluation of the theft. Rashi, Bereishit 31:19 states that Rachel’s intention was to prevent her father from worshipping idols; as Bereishit Rabbah 74:5 notes, her intent was l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven. This implies that her actions were morally correct. Yet, in response to Lavan’s assertion that someone from Yaakov’s camp stole the terafim, Yaakov declares in Bereishit 31:32 that whoever is found with the terafim will not live.3 Rashi explains that it was as a result of this curse that Rachel died prematurely along the way to Israel: While Yaakov’s intent in cursing the one with the terafim may have been built upon very different considerations,4 nonetheless Rachel was effected by this curse. Geresh Carmel asks the obvious question: why should Rachel be punished through this curse if her intent was positive? The implication of Rachel’s death and its connection to this curse is that Rachel’s actions in stealing the terafim reflected some moral problem. Thus we face the ethical dilemma of the commentators: was the theft of the terafim a positive act or a negative act?
One approach in solving this dilemma is to challenge Rashi’s assertion that Rachel stole the terafim in order to prevent her father from worshipping them. Ibn Ezra argues that if this was Rachel’s intent, she should have buried them (discarded them,destroyed them) along the way. Ibn Ezra thus contends that the terafim were objects of magic and Rachel stole them to prevent Lavan from using them to see which way Yaakov fled. While this would still be a good intention, Rachel’s demonstrates weakness in that she does not fully rely upon the protection of Hashem.5 Thus she was susceptible to Yaakov’s curse.
In presenting a different reason for Rachel’s theft, the implication is that if the intent was to prevent Lavan from practicing idolatry, the theft would have been a totally positive act. Geresh Carmel states this explicitly arguing that generally one who acted as Rachel did would not be susceptible to a curse.6 Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Bereishit 31:32 disagrees. He states that even if Yaakov knew of Rachel’s theft, he would not have condoned it. According to this view, while Rachel’s intent may have been positive, her action in actually stealing the terafim had negative moral consequences. Thus she was susceptible to Yaakov’s curse.
At issue may be the question of chet b’shvil she’yizkeh chaveircha, whether one should commit a minor sin in order to prevent another from transgressing a major sin. T.B. Shabbat 4a seems to answer conclusively that one should not commit the minor sin to prevent a major transgression by another. Tosfot, d.h. V’ki, however, shows that the matter is not so easily resolved. When the major sin concerns idolatry,7 especially when the minor sin may prevent a life of idolatry, the issue becomes even more complex. Those who disagree with Rashi may contend that theft in order to prevent idolatry is justifiable; thus the need to present other explanations for Rachel’s motivation. Those who maintain Rashi’s view may believe that there is still something wrong with Rachel violating the sin of theft although it was intended to prevent the greater violation of idolatry.
The famous story of Avraham Avinu’s shattering of his father’s idols8 may present a problem for the latter view. If it was wrong for Rachel to prevent idolatry by stealing Lavan’s idols, why was it not similarly wrong for Avraham to destroy his father’s idols?9 A distinction between destroying and stealing idols could be attempted.10 Another possibility, in a more theoretical and non-Halachic realm, is that Avraham’s intention was to teach his father the truth, not simply to prevent his incorrect action. Rachel intention was to control Lavan’s ability to perform idolatry;11 Avraham wished to touch Terech’s mind.
Rashi, Bereishit 31:33 states that Rachel was a mishamshanit, one who touches everything. Such a person does not understand the boundaries between individuals. In the moral realm, such a person believes that it is his or her duty to affect another’s moral behaviour in any way. The right of the other to contemplate and to decide a matter is inconsequential. The other’s will is ignored; the advancement of moral propriety by whatever means possible, even through manipulation, is the determined course of action. Avraham, in contrast, teaches. It is not enough to prevent transgression; he wishes the other to understand the inappropriateness of such behaviour and to decide to abandon this path. Avraham recognizes that the true advancement of morality can only be achieved with the recognition of the other’s right and ability to exercise that which makes us created in God’s image: our will to decide. We are responsible for others but in the fulfillment of this responsibility, we must respect the other as another thinking self.12
1 For a further discussion on the correct meaning of terafim, see Ibn Ezra and Ramban. For our purposes the translation of idols will suffice.
2 The story further plays out in the concluding section of this chapter beginning with Bereishit 31:30.
3 As the verse states, Yaakov did not know that Rachel took the terafim..
4 HaEmek Davar, for example, explains that Yaakov thought that anyone stealing these idols did so with the intention of using them in the practice of idolatry and thus deserved to die for this infraction. On the effect of a righteous person’s curse even beyond its intention, see T.B. Makkot 11a,b and Moed Katan 18a. It must still be recognized that, notwithstanding the extended effect of such a curse as presented in these sections of the gemara, if retribution is totally inappropriate, the curse is nullified.
5 See also R. Yehuda Nachshoni, Hagot B’Parshiot HaTorah, Vayetze 4.
6 Geresh Carmel thus contends that it was specifically Rachel who was open for punishment for such a theft. For his explanation as to why Rachel’s situation was unique, see Geresh Carmel, Bereishit 31:32.
7 See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 306:14 and 328:10 with commentaries. See also Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chaim 306:28.
8 See Bereishit Rabbah 38:13.
9 In regard to whether destroying property is a transgression for a Ben Noach, see Encyclopedia Talmudit 3:355.
10 For a Jew, there is a specific mitzvah to destroy idolatry. See Chinuch, mitzvah 436. We may question whether this mitzvah applies to a Ben Noach.
11 See, however, Torah Moshe, Bereishit 31:19
12 While a beit din’s right and obligation to force one to perform mitzvot may be perceived as challenging this concept, this right must be understood within its societal context and thus represents a different focus.
By: Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.