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    Ventriloquism in the Torah – Vayyetzei

    Laban gave Jacob such a hard time.

    First Jacob had to work for him for nothing. Then Jacob wanted to marry Rachel, and Laban exacted extra years of work for her.

    After the wedding, Jacob found he had been deceived and the wife he had married was Leah. Additional years of work, and eventually he got Rachel. No wonder that he was looking forward to going home with his wives and family.

    But now Rachel played a trick on her father Laban. She took with her his t’rafim (Gen. 31:19), and when he found out he expressed his annoyance in no uncertain terms.

    Rashi thinks that t’rafim were household gods, and Rachel stole them in the hope that it would stop Laban being idolatrous.

    Ibn Ezra, however, says that if Rashi were right, Rachel could merely have hidden the t’rafim: why did she need to steal them?

    Ibn Ezra’s own view is that they were a kind of dummy that could be mistaken for a person – perhaps something like a ventriloquist’s doll.

    He refers to I Sam. 19, which relates that Michal took the t’rafim (in this story used as a singular, not plural, noun) and put it in a bed so that Saul would think it was David, who had in fact escaped.

    The Ramban (Nachmanides) thinks that the t’rafim in the David story – unlike those that Rachel stole, which were probably household gods – were a kind of clock used to prophesy the future. If this is correct, the reason for Rachel’s action was presumably to prevent Laban finding out that Jacob had departed.

    The sages rendered t’rafim as “disgraceful things” and criticised the Israelites for following the ways of the Arameans – of whom Laban was one – by idolising them and creating a cult around them.

    Whatever the precise nature of t’rafim, if they really helped people to see into the future we can understand the rabbinic disapproval of using them.

    Forward time travel, enabling people to experience the future, has always fascinated human beings, but it has its decided drawbacks. When the Psalmist speaks of calling upon God’s name, he says, hayom im b’kolo tishma’u – “If only you would listen to His voice today” (Ps. 95:7).

    The past is over and we cannot go back and relive it. Our task is today. If we knew the future was going to be good, we might sit back and do nothing, because the future would be good regardless of our actions.

    If we knew the future was going to be bad, again we might sit back and do nothing, for nothing we did would make a difference. Life would stagnate.

    We have enough to do with today, and we have to leave God to weave our actions into a destiny that, hopefully, will bring pleasure and satisfaction.

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