The Torah describes two acts of theft in two successive verses. In Genesis 31:19 the Torah reports that Rachel “stole the household idols” of Laban. In Genesis 31:20 the Torah reports that when he and his family left secretively and without any farewell, “Jacob stole Laban’s heart.” Readers have little sympathy for the trickster Laban so the fact he is victimized twice raises no concern. In fact, one could argue that he gets exactly what he deserved. But leaving aside Laban’s character, there are deeper questions to consider. For instance, is it ever appropriate to commit a wrong against a wrongdoer? Under what circumstances and conditions is theft legitimate?
A question that also merits consideration is the comparative wrongfulness of acts of theft. To put it somewhat differently, are all acts of theft equally bad? By juxtaposing two acts of theft, the Torah makes this question relevant. Both Rachel and Jacob are thieves. But who was worse? Rachel steals idols: items with some material worth but with much more of a spiritual value. Jacob steals away. He takes nothing of material worth but something with enormous emotional value.
From Laban’s perspective Jacob’s theft was worse. The text proves this to be the case. When Laban finally catches up with Jacob and family he accuses Jacob of leaving suddenly without allowing him proper send-off. Only five verses later does he mention the theft of the household gods. The order is telling. Laban is first and foremost distressed about family. The loss of his idols is secondary. If a generalization emerges – even a tendentious one – it would be this: for Laban, family comes before religion.
Indeed, this is probably the case with most people still today, Jews included. Sacrificing for family will inevitably be a greater motivator than sacrificing for religion. That Hanukkah and Passover remain the most celebrated Jewish holidays according to every survey of American Jews is connected with the fact that they are times for family gatherings. It is not the message of the holidays that makes them popular but the opportunity to be with family. Likewise, in the name of “family” the intermarried are, more often than not, accepted into the fold. This is not to suggest that either is justifiable. It is only to suggest that both are understandable.
Every Israelite census counted people “according to their families” for good reason. It is the family that has always been at the core of Jewish life. In fact, at the core of society.