Torah Fax

Friday, November 16, 2007 - 6 Kislev, 5767 

Torah Reading: Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10 - 32:3)
Candle Lighting: 4:19 PM
Shabbat ends: 5:20 PM

Idol Talk?


Jacob had spent twenty years with his unscrupulous uncle Laban. Laban had done everything to make his life miserable, beginning, but not ending, with the ultimate act of deception of giving Jacob the wrong daughter as his wife. All the while, Jacob tended Laban’s flocks, amassing a huge fortune for his uncle, as well as for himself.


Finally, after he had fathered eleven of the twelve tribes and after much travail – particularly when he was accused by Laban's henchmen that he had stolen Laban's flocks – Jacob received a communication from G‑d to return home. Jacob complied with G‑d's request and set out on the journey back to his father's land. Meanwhile, Rachel was so disgusted with her father's idolatrous ways, she stole his idols and hid them on her camel.


When Laban discovered that Jacob had departed and that his idols were missing, he pursued him. Among the things Laban said to Jacob when he finally caught up with him was: "Now you left because you longed to return to your father's house, but why did you steal my idols?"


From the tone of the question it appears that the stealing of the idols was somehow connected to Jacob's yearning to return to his father’s house. And while he understood why Jacob would want to return home, he could not fathom why he wanted to steal his gods. What is the connection between the two matters?


In addition, we must understand why he was so upset about the missing idols. We can appreciate why Laban was upset that Jacob had left. After all, Jacob had brought much wealth and good fortune to Laban. He did not want to lose the "goose that laid the golden egg." But of what value were a few idols? In comparison with the bounty he would lose with Jacob's departure the idols were insignificant. Moreover, he could have easily replaced them. Why then did he make such a fuss about these idols?


To answer these questions in a way that relates to our own lives we must first reflect on the contemporary meaning of "idols."


In modern society, as in the days of old, there are many gods that people worship. The acquisition of money and the pursuit of power, fame and pleasure are the most obvious examples of things that modern man worships. And as much as things have changed over the ages in almost every area of life, so little has changed with respect to what people worship. And, indeed, this was what Laban's life was all about. The physical idols of silver and gold that he worshipped were merely representations of the larger objects of worship that were mentioned earlier.


Jacob, by contrast, was not interested in the pursuit of these materialistic goals and gods. All of his success in amassing a huge fortune was for the express purpose of sustaining his fledgling family that was to be come the nucleus of the Jewish people whose role it would be to bring the notion of one G‑d to the entire world. In other words, to Jacob acquisition of wealth was no more than a means to an exalted end.


When Laban saw how enterprising Jacob was with his business, he was jealous and understandably – from his materialistic vantage point – suspicious that he had infringed on his turf.


But as long as Jacob was following the rules and practices of business, which in Laban’s mind included slick wheeling and dealing, fast talking and the like, the most Laban could do was to complain. It did not arouse his ire to the point of a hostile confrontation with Jacob.


However, when he saw that Jacob "yearned to return to his father's house," and had much more spiritual interests, he projected his own arrogance onto Jacob. He claimed that he was exhibiting a "holier than thou" attitude, even as Jacob had – in Laban's perverse mind – engaged in the same animalistic pursuit of money, a vice that Laban identified with quite well. This was too much for him and prompted his outburst:


"I can possibly understand that you have spiritual interests and you wish to return to your father's home to pursue them, but why then did you steal my gods?! Why did you take all the ill-gotten gains with you? Why have you appropriated my tactics?"


Laban was not so upset that his physical idols were stolen – for those he could easily replace – he was upset that Jacob was trying to "have his proverbial cake and eat it too." He was angry that, in his mind, Jacob could maintain the guise of having an indifferent attitude towards wealth even while he was involved in its pursuit, head over heels.


Laban's argument to Jacob goes even deeper. Reading between the lines, Laban was saying to Jacob:


"If you Jacob maintain that you could live in both worlds why did you have to leave and return to your father's house? Why can't you continue to claim both worlds here with me?"


The answer to this question is given by Jacob in the next verse: "I was concerned you would steal your daughters from me."


Jacob's response was to partially concede Laban's point that he could have remained with Laban and still have pursued a higher spiritual goal. However, Jacob was concerned for Laban's daughters. The young generation may not be able to discern between Laban's deification of materialism and all that goes along with it and Jacob's use of it as a means to a higher end. For them it was dangerous.


Indeed, Jacob states that "whoever stole the idols will not live." This was not intended as a curse. Jacob was merely stating a fact that one cannot possibly survive with the worshipping of Laban's gods. And therefore he had no choice but to leave.


We are all in Jacob's position of yearning to return to our father's house. This refers to the close to two-thousand year yearning to return to our home in the Land of Israel. Returning to our father's house also refers to the return to a life that puts us in our Heavenly father's home, i.e., the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Returning home is a return to a time that allowed us to bask in G‑d's light; where G‑d's presence is not concealed.


The Labans of the world, the cynics, argue that our yearning is insincere. If we were so anxious to get back to the Holy Land of Israel why then have we stolen the gods/idols from the nations of the world. Why have we accepted the pursuit of wealth, fame, power, and pleasure and adopted a materialistic lifestyle?


Our response to them is to partly concede their argument: "You are right, we don't belong here. And while we did not really steal these idols, for our pursuit of material wealth is only intended as a means and not as and end, nevertheless, you are right; we don't belong in galut/exile. Our children will be lost if we do not return quickly to our father's house. We cannot survive here."


And then we turn our gaze heavenward and pray: "Please G‑d, bring us Moshiach who will take us back home in every sense of the word."  


Moshiach Matters     

Chassidim once asked the Alter Rebbe why Moshiach has not yet arrived. He answered that revealing the wellsprings of Chassidic thought to the masses pervades the world with the “Spirit of Moshiach.” The Chassidim, however were not satisfied; they demanded, “ We need the Redemption in its most literal sense - it cannot be replaced by any spiritual revelation, as lofty as it might be.”
(The Rebbe, Rosh Chodesh Kislev, 1989)

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