by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
There are three kinds of theft in the Torah:
—geizel (“robbery”), in which one takes something belonging to another by force;
—goneiv (“stealing”), in which one takes something belonging to another with secrecy; and
—goneiv leiv (“stealing the heart”), an idiom for rama-ut (“deception”).
In English, “He stole my heart” means “I didn’t expect to fall in love with him, but he was irresistible”. In Biblical Hebrew, “He stole my heart” means “He deceived me”. Ancient Israelites considered the heart the seat of thoughts as well as feelings: the whole conscious mind. When we deceive someone, according to the Torah, we appropriate their thoughts and feelings, replacing what they would normally think (if they knew the truth) with what we want them to think and feel.
The words for all three kinds of theft appear in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he left”). The first appearance of any form of the word goneiv (“stealing”) is in this portion, and it shows up eight times!
In last week’s Torah portion, Jacob cheats his brother, Esau, out of both his inheritance as the firstborn, and his father’s first blessing. (See my post Toledot: To Bless Someone.) He leaves home to escape Esau’s murderous rage.
In this week’s portion, he arrives at his uncle Lavan’s house in Aram, and immediately falls in love with Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel. Jacob volunteers to work seven years for her bride-price. But on the wedding day, Lavan deceives him by substituting his older daughter, Leah, hidden by a veil.
And it happened in the morning, hey! She was Leah! So he said to Lavan: What is this you did to me? Was it not for Rachel I served you? Then why rimitani? (Genesis/Bereishit 29:25)
rimitani (רִמִּיתָנִי) = you deceived me.
Lavan cleverly reminds Jacob of his own guilt when he replies: It is not done thus in our place, to give the younger one before the firstborn. (Genesis 29:26)
Jacob agrees to serve Lavan another seven years so he can marry both daughters. (See my post Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience.) But the damage has been done. Jacob cannot escape his guilt over “stealing the heart” of Esau. And once Lavan deceives him, Jacob can no longer trust his uncle and father-in-law.
At the end of fourteen years, Jacob tells Lavan that he wants to go back to Canaan. They bargain, and agree that Jacob will work for another six years in exchange for flocks of his own: all the spotted goats and dark sheep. Jacob declares:
And tzidkati will testify for me, on the future day when you bring my earnings in front of you: any goat that is not spotted, or any sheep that is not dark, [consider] it as ganuv by me. (Genesis 30:33)
tzidkati (צִדְקָתִי) = my righteousness, my honesty, my integrity
ganuv (גָּנוּב) = stolen
This is the biblical equivalent of declaring, “I am not a crook!” It is also the first time any form of the word ganav (גָּנַב), “steal”, appears in the Torah. The word comes up in Jacob’s mind (or heart) because he still feels like a thief.
Jacob does engage in selective breeding over the next six years to increase his own flock, but when he is ready to go, he sticks to his word and takes only the spotted goats and dark sheep. He also checks with Leah and Rachel, and they enthusiastically agreement to leave and start a new life in Canaan. Jacob scrupulously takes only his own wives, children, servants, and property—and sneaks away while Lavan is out of town.
Then Lavan went to shear his sheep, and Rachel, vatignov the terafim that belonged to her father. And Jacob, vayignov the leiv of Lavan the Aramean, by not telling him that he was fleeing from him. (Genesis 31:19-20)
vatignov (וַתִּגְנֹב) = she stole
terafim (תְּרָפִים) = household idols (figurines of gods)
vayignov (וָיִּגְנֹב) = he stole
leiv (לֵב) = the heart
Rachel steals actual objects: figurines of gods cast in bronze, molded in clay, or carved out of stone. These small sculptures were commonly found in houses throughout Mesopotamia and Canaan during the second millennium B.C.E. Scholars still do not know their purpose, but they may have been used for divination or to protect the household. (See my post: Vayeitzei: Clinging to Magic.)
But Jacob’s theft is intangible. He takes only what is already his. He does not lie to his uncle/father-in-law; he merely acts as though nothing is going to happen while Lavan is away.
When Lavan finds out Jacob has left, he gathers his men and chases his son-in-law, catching up with him on the border of Canaan.
And Lavan said to Jacob: What have you done? Vatignov my heart, and you drove my daughters like captives of the sword! Why did you hide, fleeing? Vatignov from me, and you did not tell me! (Genesis 31:26-27)
vatignov (וַתִּגְנֹב) = you stole.
Lavan rants on a bit longer, then ends with a second accusation:
And now, certainly you left because certainly you longed for the house of your father; but why ganavta my gods? (Genesis 31:30)
ganavta (גָנַבְתָּ) = did you steal
At this point Jacob gives a two-point rebuttal.
And Jacob answered, and he said to Lavan: Because I was afraid, for I said: What if tigzol your daughters from me! (Genesis 31:31)
tigzol (תִּגְזֹל) = you take by force, you rob.
In other words, he had to “steal the heart” of Lavan, because he was afraid that if Lavan knew they were going, he would “rob” Jacob of his wives. As for stealing Lavan’s gods, Jacob knows he is innocent. If one of his servants turns out to be guilty, he is willing to go along with a death penalty.
With whomever you find your gods, he shall not live; in front of our kinsmen, identify what is yours with me, and take it for yourself! And Jacob did not know that Rachel ginavatam. (Genesis 31:32)
ginavatam (גִּנָבָתַם) = she had stolen them.
Lavan is upset enough to go through Jacob’s camp tent by tent, looking for stolen goods. But he finds nothing—thanks to Rachel’s cleverness.
And Rachel had taken the terafim, and she had put them in the camel pack, and she sat upon them. And Lavan rummaged through everything in the tent, but he did not find [them]. And she said to her father: Let there be no anger in the eyes of my lord, that I am not able to rise before you, because the way of women is on me. So he searched, but he did not find the terafim. (Genesis 31:34-35)
Lavan reluctantly makes a peace treaty with Jacob, and they go their separate ways: Lavan back to his home in Aram, and Jacob back to the land of his birth, Canaan. I think Jacob hopes to leave his guilt behind, and return to Canaan a new man: not only a rich patriarch in his own right, but also a man of proven integrity. Alas, it is not that easy.
In next week’s Torah portion (Vayishlach), Jacob reconciles with his brother, but he still cannot believe Esau has entirely forgiven him for his deceit twenty years before. So he refuses his brother’s offer of company on the road, and tells Esau he will join him in Seir. Then as soon as Esau and his men have left, Jacob heads toward Shekhem instead. Although the Torah does not say so, he is deceiving Esau the same way he “stole the heart” of Lavan: pretending everything is fine, when really he has other plans. He cannot trust Esau, because he cannot trust himself.
A chain of deception continues through the rest of the book of Genesis, as Jacob’s sons deceive him and each other.
Yet deception is a natural strategy when someone is in a weak position.
Before he leaves Canaan, Jacob cannot compete on a level playing field with his brother, Esau, because the laws in his society favor the firstborn. He probably sees deception as his only option to get what he desperately wants: a household of his own, and a divine blessing. In Lavan’s house, Jacob goes to great lengths to earn what he wants by honest labor. But since Lavan is his master, and he is always afraid Lavan will cheat him again, Jacob remains in a weak position. So he “steals” his father-in-law’s heart—by stealing away. And maybe he is right. Maybe Lavan would never have let Jacob take his own wives, children, and property to Canaan.
In my own life I, too, have found it hard to speak with integrity when I am in a weak position. I am afraid of people who blow up easily, and I am still trying to figure out how to be honest with them, instead of “stealing their hearts” by smiling and pretending nothing is wrong.
I do not rob. I do not steal. I pray that someday I can say, honestly, that I do not ever deceive.