Sunday, November 18, 2007

Do Two Wrongs Make a Right? The Balance Between Responsibility and Respect

Posted by R. Moshe Adatto

Was it proper for Rachel to steal her father's idols? According to the Midrash (quoted in Rashi 31:19), Rachel's intent was to stop her father from worshipping idols. She clearly felt that it was not only acceptable, but laudable for her to commit this act of theft for the greater good of saving her father from continuing a life of paganism. However, this appears to be a matter of debate. For if Yaakov agreed with her, how could he be so certain that a member of his household had not stolen them? If so, we are faced with a philosophical difference in perspective between a great Patriarch and an great Matriarch. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

(The Talmud's discussion (Shabbat 4a) about the propriety of one person committing a minor sin in order to stop someone else from a more major sin may well be relevant, although there is room to make a distinction.)

We might be tempted to support Yaakov's position based on the fact that Rachel was punished with an early death. However, this does not appear to be relevant to our discussion, because her death seems to be attributed to Yaakov's curse- "whoever you find your gods with shall not live," and not due to the G-d taking a position on the morality of her action.

From a contemporary standpoint this is a difficult issue to grapple with. In a culture of relative morality we are very uncomfortable as a society with the concept of people imposing their standards on others. Additionally, as Jews we do not want anyone else imposing their standard of absolute morality on us. However, we also believe in our responsibility to help others, and our understanding of what is considered help is certainly shaped by our beliefs and moral code.

I am not offering any answers, but I do feel that the balance between respect for other people's property rights (and their right to make their own decisions, as flawed as they might be) and care and concern for the spiritual wellbeing of others deserves thought.

Are you a Yaakov or a Rachel?


  1. Is the question, am I a Yaakov or a Rachel? Or is the question, what is the Torah's message?
    If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that the Torah's message is am I a Yaakov or a Rachel!

  2. You portray Yaakov as a man who respects people's "right to make their own decisions, as flawed as they might be." Is this accurate? How does this square with Yaakov's behavior at the beginning of the parsha? When Yaakov first arrived in Charan, he confronted a group of shephards: "It is still the middle of the day. It's not time to bring the livestock together. Water the sheep and go on grazing!"
    If this is not imposing one's own standards on others, what is?
    Could it be that Yaakov learned from his mistake and resolved to never again instruct others how to behave?

  3. Why did Rachel hold on to the idols for so long (10 days)? If her objective was to prevent her father from worshiping them, one would think that she would have ditched the detestable objects in the desert at the earliest opportunity. Also, why wouldn't she tell Jacob about what she had done?

    Furthermore, since idolatry is a state of mind, why would she think that stealing her father's idols (which are easy to replace) would stop him from being an idolator?