"And Yaakov (Jacob) arose and placed his children and wives on the camels…to go to Yitzchak (Isaac) his father in the Land of Canaan…And Rachel stole her father’s teraphim (idols).” (Bereshit 31:17-19)
Why did Rachel steal her father’s teraphim? Although there are various interpretations, Rashi (on v. 19) invokes the explanation of Bereshit Rabbah that Rachel sought to impede her father from further avodah zarah (idolatry), and she therefore confiscated his teraphim before departing Charan.
Why did Rachel seek to prevent Lavan (Laban) from engaging in avodah zarah? Of course, it is always commendable to prevent others from sinning in any manner, but we do not find that Rivka took her family’s idols with her when she departed from Charan, in order to try to stop her family’s idolatrous practices. According to the opinion in Chazal that Rivka was an adult when she left Charan with Eliezer, she certainly would have been able to confiscate the avodah zarah of her family’s home. Why then did Rachel steal Lavan’s avodah zarah? Why is this case different?
Chazal record (Bereshit Rabbah, in Rashi on 29:12) that when Yaakov first met Rachel and was told that she was Lavan’s daughter, Yaakov remarked that should Lavan act dishonestly toward him, he would have to treat Lavan in kind, and should Lavan act in good faith with him, he would act in good faith with Lavan as well.
As is known, the former path had to be taken. “And he (Yaakov) said unto Lavan: ‘…Why did you deceive me?’ and Lavan replied, ‘Such a thing shall not be done in our place, to marry off the younger before the older. In another week, this one (Rachel) too shall be given to you in exchange for seven additional years that you will work for me.’ “ (ibid. 29:25-27) Due to Lavan's deceptive and manipulative ways, the only way to succeed with him and to protect oneself was to act stealthily – even though Yaakov conducted himself with total honesty as Lavan's shepherd for the 20 years that he was with him.
As a result of Lavan’s manipulative character, he seems to have forfeited the respect of his daughters and destroyed his relationship with them. This is why Rachel and Leah were ready to part ways with Lavan when given the choice, noting that he had treated them like strangers (or chattel), basically selling them into marriage in exchange for Yaakov’s employment. (ibid. v. 15 with Rashi) One may initially be puzzled by Rachel’s and Leah’s rationale as to their readiness to leave Lavan, “for do we have a share any longer in his property?” (ibid. v. 14 with Rashi from Midrash); however, since Lavan’s manipulation and greed had reduced his relationship with his daughters to one of money, there was nothing else left that bound Rachel and Leah to him.
It is noteworthy that the sixth aliyah of the parshah, in which Yaakov and his family flee and are shortly thereafter confronted by Lavan, features the word "ganov" - to steal - eight times, in various permutations and usages. This alludes to and underscores the method by which one had to interact with Lavan, for his manipulative character compelled others to behave stealthily rather than openly when dealing with him.
How could Lavan in good conscience conduct himself with his own family as he did?
Upon establishing a truce with Yaakov, Lavan proposed a radical agreement: that neither he nor Yaakov could pass the stone marker between their lands, which was designated as "Gal-Ed". As such, Lavan and Yaakov would never again be in the relative proximity of one another (unless it was for business purposes - 31:52 with Rashi from Bereshit Rabbah). This effectively meant that Lavan would never again see his daughters or grandchildren - yet he nonetheless sought to enter into this pact in order to protect his possessions, as he viewed things. When swearing to abide by this agreement, Lavan invoked the name of "the god of Nachor", referring to avodah zarah (Rashi on v. 53 from Bereshit Rabbah), in the belief that this idolatrous deity provided authority for the family-severing pact. We further find that Lavan's understanding of his success, which included his daughters' marriages in exchange for the valuable labor of Yaakov, was largely based on divination with his teraphim. (30:27 with Ibn Ezra, Ramban and Chizkuni)
History is replete with members of pagan cultures promoting and taking part in all types of hedonistic indulgences, base and abominable activities, pillaging, plundering and marauding, and so many other self-serving crimes, all with the authority of their idols. Why is this? Because by definition, avodah zarah is subject to manipulation, for its deities are limited to certain powers and are bound by form, and often can be held and contained by people, thereby enabling people to control these idolatrous deities and manipulate them, so to say, such that the people can do whatever they really want to do and proclaim that it is endorsed by their gods.
Lavan likewise engaged in greed and extortion, using his teraphim and idolatrous beliefs as the authority for his actions. Thus, Lavan was able to treat his family as chattel and connive for wealth in good conscience, as he had a religious basis for all that he was doing. His avodah zarah was the "hechsher" (kosher endorsement) for everything that he did, as its authority could be invoked and manipulated to justify it all, similar to other ancient heathens who committed abusive and indulgent acts in the name of the idols which they crafted and controlled.
Rachel realized that Lavan's fixation on wealth and his dishonest methods of enrichment had destroyed his relationship with his family and had compelled Yaakov to act stealthily and caused him to suffer. She felt that if she could somehow undermine Lavan's sense of authority to act as he did, she could restore the relationship and also take the pressure off of Yaakov. Rachel thus stole her father's teraphim in an effort to separate him from avodah zarah and thereby take away his basis and sense of divine justification and authority for acting manipulatively, in a last-minute effort to turn Lavan around and salvage her family's relationship with him, while providing relief to Yaakov.
As B'nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel), we are privileged to bear allegiance to the One God, who is limitless, formless, all-powerful and eternal, and whose will is expressed in the unchanging Torah. This truth compels submission and surrender to God’s command and precludes manipulation thereof. Like Rachel, we await the day when all will cease from misguided ways, as they renounce falsehood and submit to the true Divine.