Another great story from the bible. Jacob goes to find a wife, sees and immediately falls in love with Rachel, the daughter of Laban. Laban, the head of the family, welcomes Jacob in and Jacob lives with them. Laban offers to pay Jacob for the help Jacob provides, and Jacob asks that his wages be Rachel, so Laban agrees to let Jacob work for him 7 years to “earn” Rachel. After 7 years Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, then gives Rachel, too, but for 7 more years of labor. We saw Laban’s treachery when Eliazer wanted to take Rebekah back to Isaac, and now we see Laban is still a trickster. Next he makes a deal with Jacob to give Jacob the weakest sheep and goats, but Jacob turns the tables and ends up with the strongest of the herds and flocks. After 14 years the sons of Laban are angry with Jacob for having tricked their father, and Jacob hears of it and flees back to his father’s land, but is not fast enough. Laban catches up, and uses the fact that Rachel stole the family idols to accuse Jacob of the theft, but Rachel, a bit of a liar herself, hides the idols where Laban cannot look for them (under her saddle/chair, which she said she could not rise from because it was her time of Nidah, her menstrual period.)
So Laban can’t prove Jacob a thief, and they make a vow by a standing stone Laban sets up not to cross over to do harm to each other. I think that they hated each other and made this vow not to promise to visit each other peacefully, but really to say ,”You stay on your side and I’ll stay on my side, otherwise there will be trouble.”
The importance of taking the family idols was not because Rachel was an idol worshipper- the family idols were more than just religious: they represented the leadership and power of the one who owned them. The other family members would go to that person to ask them to pray for successful crops, for children, healing, whatever they needed. By stealing these idols Rachel was taking the inheritance she felt that she and her family were entitled to have.
So far in Genesis we have seen that from the very first humans created there has been treachery and sin in the world. God is perfect, but He doesn’t create perfection. That is not a mistake on His part, He did so to fulfill His plan. There is balance in the universe, and in human nature we all, like Shaul says, do what we don’t want to do and don’t do what we want to. In some they want to do evil more than they want to do good, and others do more good than evil. There is a wide bell curve with good and evil in each of us, no one being right in the middle, and very few at the extremes. Eve sinned and caused Adam to sin, Cain killed Abel, Noah got drunk, Abraham pimped Sarah (twice!), Isaac pimped Rebekah, Jacob tricked Esau and his father, Laban tricked Jacob, Jacob tricked Laban back, and Rachel tricked Laban, too.
And these people are supposed to be the Patriarchs and Matriarchs we look up to? Yes, they are. Because, as I say above, we all have the desire and opportunity to sin, and we also have the desire and opportunity to do good. We see the great Patriarchs did sin, sure enough, but they also did good. And the good they did was far more valuable and faithful than whatever evil they performed. Some of what they did that we see as sinful was culturally acceptable, in many ways. Stealing the family idols was almost understandable, from Rachel’s viewpoint. Jacob didn’t really trick Laban into stealing the strongest of the animals, he used good husbandry methods and was successful because of what he did with what he had (and God, of course, was helping.)
None of us is perfect, and the parashah we read this Shabbat shows that. But, on the other hand, none of us is purely evil (well, in today’s world with the current events in France and Israel, maybe I shouldn’t be too sure of that) and what really matters is not so much what we do, but what we want to do.
I believe that we read enough times in the Bible where God says He sees the heart, and how the blood of bulls and goats means nothing to Him. God wants a broken spirit and a contrite heart to come before Him; just doing the letter of the Torah is not going to please God. Obedience is important, and even forced obedience is better than non-obedience. What God wants, and what He constantly tells us in the bible, is that He wants joyful obedience, faithful obedience, obedience that comes from love and awe, not from coercion or threat of punishment.
We all have good and bad, Yin and Yang, Yetzer Hara and Yetzer Tov. We all have free will and the right to make our own decisions about what we do. And all God wants of us is to worship Him as He said we should (that’s all in the Torah) and to do so in order that we may live. God wants a cheerful and willing worshipper, He wants our obedience to be labors of love, He wants us to treat each other with compassion and respect. He knows we are sinful in nature and desire. I think that’s why He is so pleased when even one person does what is right in His eyes, because He understands how hard it is for us to do so.
You are going to sin. You are going to do so, over and over, no matter how hard you try not to. The thing to remember is that although it is wrong to sin, when we do we can ask forgiveness and receive it when it is our heart’s true desire to want to stop. God is not stupid or gullible, and if you sin because you want to and ask forgiveness while your heart is still desiring to sin, do you really think God will buy that? He sees your heart! He knows what you really want! The bible tells us that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved, and that is true; but, the underlying meaning is that the ones calling are not doing so just to save their butts from Sheol- they do so because they want to stop sinning! We should ask for more than just “Forgive me!”- it should be a call for “Forgive me, and help me to stop!” That is a call that demonstrates you are truly doing T’Shuvah in your heart, that you are turning from your sin, that you are trying to do what God wants and are not just sorry you sinned. You need to be rueful and feel totally distraught. Many people, I think you will agree, feel sorry they sinned not because of what they did, but because they got caught. We need to be sorry for what we do to others that is hurtful and we need to feel terrible when we sin because no matter who we sin against, it is always first and foremost against God.
The enemy, HaSatan, wants you to feel so bad that you just give up trying to do right, so don’t fall for that. And don’t beat yourself up (well, maybe a little but not too much) when you keep doing the same sin over and over because your flesh is weak. It is your heart’s desire that is important.
I often say that before I was saved I was a sinner who rationalized my sins, and now I am a sinner who regrets my sins. That is the real difference- the feeling in my heart, the sadness in my soul when I sin, and the desire to stop doing wrong and to only do right.
We should look up to the people in the bible who are great leaders, righteous men and women, and recognize they are as weak and sinful as we are. Why? Because that gives us hope for ourselves: if Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rebekah, Noah, Moses (he committed murder, remember?), if all these great leaders and godly people were just as sinful as I am, then I can also be a righteous and godly person despite my sin. I just need to have the right attitude, have a constant desire to do what God wants me to do, and constantly work at it.
If you take three steps forward and then backslide two steps, you are still one step closer to God. We do right, we do wrong, we walk straight paths, we swerve, we fall, and we get up.
What matters is that you stay the course, that you keep walking forward, and that you keep improving. How fast or how slow is not important; what is important is that you keep improving.