Hi everyone. This is a really strange time to have a Bat mitzvah. When I imagined it, I thought it would be a lot different than how it is now. But I’m grateful to see everyone’s faces and that my family is here. It is a hard time because we are all so isolated. It is hard to know how everyone is feeling. And I was thinking about not knowing what others are thinking as I was writing my d’var Torah.
My Torah portion is about Jacob leaving Beersheba and going to Haran. There he finds his uncle Laban and stays with him. While he is there, he falls in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel. Laban realizes this quickly and decides to take full advantage. So, he makes a deal with Jacob: If Jacob works for him for seven years, he can marry Rachel. Jacob agrees.
However, once those seven years pass and it is time for the wedding, Laban realizes his oldest daughter Leah has not yet wed and he doesn’t want her to disgrace their family if her younger sister marries before her. So, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah.
Jacob is furious. But, Laban explains the situation to Jacob and tells him if he works another seven years he can marry Rachel, too. Jacob does this because he loves Rachel. Fast forward seven years later, and now he is married to both daughters.
While Jacob is married to both sisters, Leah has 4 children with him. Rachel, however, cannot have children. Instead, Jacob has children with Rachel’s maid Bilhah. Bilhah has 2 children. Leah sees this and worries she might have no more children, she then gives her maid, Zilpah, to Jacob. Jacob has 2 children with Zilpah.
Soon after, however, Leah does have more children with Jacob--2 more sons and 1 daughter. Then, God remembers Rachel and gives her 1 son with Jacob.
Eventually, Jacob and Laban get into a fight, and Jacob ends up taking Leah, Rachel, and all the children away until he and Laban finally reach a truce.
Something that really stuck out to me in this portion is the mistreatment of women in the story. And not only the mistreatment, but how we don’t get to really get a grasp of the story from their perspective or hear their voices. This leaves us with so many unanswered questions.
Did Rachel know what her father's plan for the wedding was? And if she did, was she ok with it? Did Leah truly want to marry Jacob? Or even did Rachel want to marry Jacob? Did they want to leave their father and their whole life behind? This whole thing between Rachel and Leah -- did it ruin their relationship, or did they always compete with each other? And what about Bilhah and Zilpah having no say in how they were treated--what are they thinking? Just think of how different the story would be If it were being told by the women. There really is so much gray area in this portion that could have all been avoided if we had simply given the women a voice and heard their perspective.
For my Bat mitzvah project, I have been talking and working with the wrongfully convicted and trying to listen to their voices. Now, especially because of George Floyd's death, we have been hearing and talking a lot about police violence. So, I decided to talk with some of my dad's clients to hear about their experience with wrongful conviction and police violence.
One story involves a man and a woman who had 3 kids together -- they all have become friends of our family. I have researched their case. In their specific story, a police officer started harassing both and eventually he framed both for drug possession and intent to sell. It happened a bunch of times. In one instance, they were just in their car when the officer pulled them over and looked in their car, pulled something out of his sleeve and accused both of drug trafficking.
The couple told other police and many others that the officers had framed them. But no one did anything. The man was sent to prison and the women pleaded guilty to do probation to avoid prison. After all, they had a family and needed to protect them as well. Eventually, years later, my dad worked with them and was able to free them.
The ending is happy, but the story is not. Even after the couple was free of their convictions no one apologized for not helping or not believing them. Everyone just went on with their lives. When they were first wrongfully convicted no one listened to what they had to say or even gave them a second glance. They were labeled as soon as they were convicted and, not only did this conviction affect them, but it also took a toll on their whole family. The kids were used to their dad being around all the time, being the one to take them to school, pick them up, and help them with their homework. That was all taken away. That was just one of the many consequences that came because no one would listen to their voices when they were telling people what happened.
October 2, 2020, was something called Wrongful Conviction Day – a worldwide recognition of individuals who are convicted of crimes they did not commit. In honor that day, I encouraged many people to show their support by telling the wrongfully convicted that their voice is important, and we are listening. I worked with the Exoneration Project to have people send messages directly to people still in prison fighting their wrongful conviction. I wrote a message too and told them there is a community out here supporting and listening to you.
Connecting this back to the Torah portion: No one listened to what Rachel and Leah had to say or their feelings on their situation. Jacob and Laban just assumed they wanted what Jacob and Laban wanted. And Laban treated both Rachel and Leah as an object, trading them for labor. Even though it may have been common around then, it doesn’t make it any better and is not an excuse. I think all this proves how we lack an understanding for so many people.
So, after hearing these stories I encourage you to listen to others' stories and don't make judgements if you don’t fully understand their perspective. Most importantly have and show empathy.
About the Author: Olive is a current 7th grader and had her Bat Mitzvah this year. She loves to eat hamentashen cookies during Purim! Olive and her family belong to Oak Park Temple and she is part of the Oak Park Temple Youth group (OPTY). Olive loves to spend her summers at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI).