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This week's Torah portion: Vayetzei

“And Rachel stole the teraphim that were her father’s” Genesis 31:19

    Jacob now finds himself in the bosom of his uncle Laban’s family. In a matter of just one chapter we skip 14 years and find that Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah have given birth to 12 children. As Jacob plans to flee his uncle’s home with his “rightfully” earned property, we read that Rachel stole her father’s teraphim — small household idols.

    Why did she do this? Rashi, in the 11th century, suggests Rachel wanted to prevent her father from idol worship by taking his idols away. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, proffers the view Laban might have used the teraphim to foresee Jacob’s escape, imagining that teraphim were not solely used for idolatry but had some kind of power for divination of the future.

    I wonder if we need to expend so much effort trying to sanitise Rachel’s actions. Notwithstanding a post-biblical concern to ensure all characters conform to rabbinic theological standards, my interest is in this moment of subversion by Rachel. Perhaps this is Rachel taking a piece of her home life with her as she embarks on a new journey. Either because it was customary to take cultic objects from home in these circumstances or because these teraphim were of high sentimental value and reminders of Rachel’s family home. 

    On the other hand, read more powerfully, perhaps what we have here is Rachel who, as Wendy Zierler of the Hebrew Union College suggests, “initiates and plots her own destiny”.

    In this way, when we are less worried about whether her actions were “kosher”, Rachel is not subordinate to the men of the story or our religious sensibilities, but cracks open a space for her own agency and forces us to think differently about her experience. This, in turn, perhaps gives us space to think about our own experiences and responsibility in creating our Jewish identity.



Rabbi Neil Janes

Friday, October 20, 2017