Shabbat Vayishlach: Bad Company

November 19, 2021 by Jeremy Rosen
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Jacob fled the corrosive atmosphere in Laban’s house. But secretly his beloved Rachel took with her, the teraphim, the household gods of her father.

We are not told whether she did this to wean her father off idolatry or whether she believed in their powers. But the culture of Laban’s house seems to have affected her.

Jacob then travelled towards Esau, uncertain and then fearful of what his attitude would be. To his relief when they meet it was cordial. They embraced and Esau seemed to bear no malice towards his brother anymore. He offered to accompany Jacob’s family back to Seir, where Esau now lived (which was beyond the borders of Israel). Jacob declined his offer to leave a detachment of his men to protect Jacob. Jacob did not proceed towards Esau’s territory. Instead, he returned to the area of Shechem which we now know as Samaria or Shomron, where his father had been based.

It seems that Jacob did not want to live too near his brother regardless of whether his preference was to live in his ancestral homeland.  Near Shechem, he bought some land to settle. But almost as soon as he arrived his daughter, Dinah, visiting the city, was raped. Two of Jacob’s sons took the law into their own hands. They pretended to negotiate a settlement with Shechem. But that was only a ruse. They killed the people of a Shechem. Jacob remonstrated and expressed his anger.

Then he told everyone to head to  Bethel where Abraham and Isaac had built altars previously, and the atmosphere was more conducive to his values. He commanded his sons to get rid of their pagan gods and to purify themselves. So that Rachel’s taking Laban’s teraphim was not an isolated incident but an indication of how profoundly they had all been influenced by the house of Laban. They not only got rid of the idols but also their gold ear and nose rings ( a basis for traditional objection to Jewish men wearing ear and nose rings and jewellery).

All this speaks about the danger and corrosive effect of bad company. We are so easily influenced by peer group and social pressures as well as bad friends and partners. As the Mishna says ‘” Keep far away from bad neighbours and friends.” And “woe to bad people and woe to bad company.”

We might think we are strong enough to resist alien influences. But in fact, history shows this is rarely the case. And this is why we tend to prefer to live in communities of like-minded people. If we have been accused of being separatist it is only because we have wanted to preserve a  supportive Jewish environment and values for us and our children.

Genesis 32.4 – 37.

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