Power of the past

Power of the past

Vayetze - Genesis 28:10-32:3

At the end of the 20 years that Jacob spent in the home of his uncle Lavan, where he married two wives and acquired two concubines, fathered 11 sons and a daughter, and obtained great wealth, God tells him it is time to return home to Canaan.

While Jacob is making preparations to leave, the Torah tells us, “Meanwhile Lavan had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household teraphim [idols].” When Lavan returns and discovers that Jacob and his family have left, he pursues them. And when he meets up with them, Lavan demands an explanation for their secret departure and concludes his speech, “Very well, you had to leave because you were longing for your father’s house, but why did you steal my gods?”

Jacob is enraged by the accusation and replies, “Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!” The Torah adds, parenthetically, “Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them.”

Jacob’s lack of knowledge had dire consequences. He pronounced his curse believing that while it might be possible that some idolatrous servant had stolen Lavan’s teraphim, there was no way that his curse would fall upon his beloved wife, who would die in childbirth soon after these events.

However, what the Torah doesn’t tell us is why Rachel stole her father’s household gods. Midrash Bereishit Rabbah explains that Rachel stole her father’s idols to prevent him from worshiping them anymore and thus turn him away from idolatry.

Perhaps, but this strikes me as a bit too pious. It’s more likely that Rachel stole the teraphim because she wanted them for herself. And, if so, that raises the very interesting question of why she wanted them so much that she would not only steal them, but also hide them from both her husband and her father.

One possibility is that she wanted them because she believed in their power. The teraphim were thought to provide protection for the home and to protect the well-being of the family. It’s possible that in spite of 20 years of Jacob’s influence, Rachel still believed on some level that she could not rely solely on Jacob’s God, but that she needed the teraphim of her childhood to ensure the welfare of her family.

This is surely a distressing portrait of our matriarch, but there is another possibility. Perhaps, as she left for a new home in a strange land, Rachel wanted a comforting symbol of her home and her childhood, much like a college freshman who keeps a bedraggled stuffed animal on her bed in the dorm to remind her of home. Perhaps Rachel thought these familiar objects would give her strength and courage to embrace the changes in her life.

Because Rachel died soon after this episode, we don’t know if the teraphim and the memories they represented would have allowed Rachel to move forward confidently or if they would have anchored her to the idolatrous ways of her father’s people. We hope that she would have viewed these artifacts with nothing more than a sense of nostalgia and fond memories as she went about her new life — but we don’t know.

The past is powerful. We can’t escape it; in fact, we can’t live without our memories, which help to define our place in the world. But we do have a choice about how we use the past. It can become a foundation, fertile ground on which to build new experiences, new relationships, and new realities, or it can become an idol, paralyzing us and preventing any change.

A number of years ago, a colleague posted a question on our rabbis’ e-mail list. His congregation was remodeling its sanctuary and wanted to place a Hebrew quotation on the wall, perhaps a biblical verse or a saying from the Talmud. The rabbi had some ideas, but wondered if anyone could suggest something particularly appropriate. Another colleague, well-known for his sense of humor, immediately replied, “How about, ‘That’s not the way we do it here.’” I’m sure every rabbi who saw his answer had a good laugh, because we have all seen ideas for exciting programs and initiatives sacrificed on the altar of “that’s not the way we do it here.”

It’s true for institutions and it’s true for individuals. Sometimes the old ways work, and it makes no sense to change them simply for the sake of change. But clinging to a past that doesn’t work anymore is a form of idolatry.

Each of us has a rich and complex past — as individuals, as a community, and as a people. The challenge we face is to make sure that the past serve as a foundation and not as an obstacle, that it be a blessing and not a curse.

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