In this week’s Parashah, Parashat VaYeitzei, we read that Rachel stole her father Lavan’s Terafim. Most authorities explain that she stole idols that belonged to her father, so that he would cease to worship them. This seemingly noble act is undermined, however, by Yaakov’s categorical denial that anyone of his party stole these idols, once Lavan reached him (Bereishit 31:32). He even seems repulsed that Lavan would accuse his family of doing such a thing. Furthermore, once given permission to search their belongings, Lavan approaches Rachel, who attempts to deny Lavan any chance to search her tent (31:35). If what Rachel did was such a noble act as preventing idolatry, then why did she deny it?
To illustrate how nobly Rachel was acting, Rabbeinu Chananel (31:39) states that she stole the idols to force her father confront her, which would afford her an opportunity to tell him that idols have no power. If these idols did have any power, they would have stopped Rachel from stealing them; as they did nothing, Rachel could clearly show their powerlessness. According to Rabbeinu Chananel, Rachel’s act was extremely reminiscent of what the Midrash attributes to Avraham Avinu when he first discovered Hashem (Bereishit Rabbah 38:13): Avraham smashes all of his father’s idols to show his father that these idols had no power. Furthermore, the Da’at Zekenim (31:19 s.v. VaTignov Rachel Et HaTerafim) states that Rachel also used this opportunity to destroy Lavan’s idols, exactly mirroring Avraham’s act. If so, why was Ya’akov so scandalized by Lavan’s accusation?
There is a telling difference, however, between these two stories: Avraham confronts his father, telling Terach why he acted in such a way, while Rachel dodges Lavan’s accusations entirely. Rachel had similar intentions to those of a person with a friend who has an addiction. He will try to steal a pack of cigarettes from his addicted friend in order to confront him. However, if his addicted friend inquires about the missing pack of cigarettes and he denies ever taking them, nothing has been accomplished. The addicted individual will just buy another pack. In the same way, by stealing the idols, Rachel is setting up a confrontation to attempt to stop Lavan’s idolatrous ways. But by denying that she had taken the idols, Rachel had accomplished absolutely nothing. Lavan would simply buy additional idols as soon as he left them. Why did Rachel not confront Lavan?
The Rashbam offers one possible answer (31:19 s.v. VaTignov Rachel Et HaTerafim): Rachel’s noble act was not done to prevent Lavan from serving idols. Rather, Lavan had used these idols to practice magic and divination. When Rachel stole the idols, Lavan could not use magic to find Yaakov’s family, increasing their chances of successful escape. Thus, Rachel’s strange behavior when Lavan confronted her was indeed logical; once he had found them, having the idols was of no advantage any longer, but was rather an act of blatant thievery. Ramban (ibid.) and Chizkuni (ibid.) also agree with the Rashbam, saying that although some of the Terafim were idols, some of Terafim that Rachel stole were used to divinate and see the future.
The Seforno offers another potential answer to our question (31:30 s.v. Lamah Ganavta Et Elohai). He explains that when Lavan asks Yaakov why he stole his idols, Lavan is really stating, “Your leaving is not a reason to steal my idols.” Therefore, it is clear that Lavan does not and will not understand why idolatry is wrong. His point of view, however, is clear; he believes that Yaakov is a thief, and does not consider Rachel’s action to be justified. When Lavan confronts her, she understands that nothing she could say would impact Lavan’s opinion, and remains silent to avoid incriminating her family. Ultimately, it would only cause a Chillul Hashem.
Therefore, Rachel embodies Hillel’s famous words in Pirkei Avot (1:12) to chase peace and love peace. She wants to initiate peace, even if nothing can be done to stop Lavan’s idolatry. She shows that sometimes there is nothing that can be done to help people, but it is our role to insure peace, rather than needless quarrel, when confronted with such people. As Rashi (11:9) states, “Lamadta SheSanui HaMachloket VeGadol HaShalom”, “[We] learn that quarrel is hated [before G-d] and peace is great”.