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Shomrim: Our Brothers' Keepers

A bus is traveling from Bnai Brak to Jerusalem, nearly full, mostly with Chassidim. At the last stop, a scantily clad young woman boards the bus and finds a seat next to one of the Chassidim. Clearly uncomfortable, he squirms for a while and then reaches into his knapsack and hands the woman an apple.

“What’s this?” she asks.

“An apple.”

“I can see its an apple. But why did you give it to me?”

“Because after Eve ate the apple, she realized that she was naked.”

The next morning, the young woman again boards the same bus making the same run to Jerusalem. Having taken the none-too-subtle hint, this time she’s more modestly dressed and she finds a seat right next to the same Chassid. After a few moments, she reaches into her bag and hands him an apple.

“What’s this?” he asks suspiciously.

“An apple.” she says.

“I can see that it’s an apple. But why did you give it to me?”

“Because after Adam ate the apple, he realized that he had to work for a living.”

The opening stories of Genesis with its creation accounts, Adam and Eve, the Garden, the tree and the snake, Cain and Abel, the sins of humanity leading to the flood and Noah, these stories are so well known to us that it was a challenge to approach this parsha from a fresh perspective. Creation versus Evolution. The roles of woman and men. Are these stories historical fact, made up fiction, or perhaps parables to teach us life lessons? There are so many arguments these stories fuel.

In preparing for this morning I was reading Rashi’s commentary on Genesis and his opening question bothered me. He more or less asks, “Why does the Torah not begin with Parsha Bo in Exodus with the first Mitzvah commanded to the Jewish people?” Rashi’s answer has to do with land rights. That is, starting with the story of creation explains that the Earth is the L-rd’s. So when He takes the land of Canaan away from the gentile nations and gives it to the children of Israel, that is His right. He created it so He could give it to whom He pleased.

Now whether you accept Rashi’s reasoning or not, Bereshit is important for many other reasons as well. As sensitive modern readers of the Bible, we understand and love Bereshit with Noah’s ark, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah. We fully appreciate why we would be infinitely poorer without these paradigm-building characters. Okay, so if the patriarchs and matriarchs are important and we’re interested in the history and destiny of the Jewish people, why not begin the Torah with Abraham and Parsha Lech Lecha, the story of the man who began the journey? Well, we could do that but what I’d like to explore with you is the possibility that we need the creation accounts in Parsha Bereshit because they contain within them wisdom that is essential to understanding the narratives that follow.

There are two great sins committed in Parsha Bereshit. Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, and Cain murders his brother. My question is: Is there a connection between these two events? If you examine the text closely, you’ll notice that there is in fact a common denominator. Before God commands Adam about what he may and what he may not eat in the garden, there’s a line commonly translated as:

“And God took man and placed him in the garden to work it and protect it.” (Gen 2:15)

We understand what it means that God placed man in the garden. And we could even understand that he charged him with working in the garden. But what does וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ mean? To protect or guard? But protect from whom? There are no aggressors, no predators. This is the Gan Eden. There’s no one else around. I submit to you that we need to use a slightly different translation. It doesn’t mean to guard or protect. It means to accept responsibility. It’s the overarching ethic within which all the mitzvot, all the commandments and restrictions apply. “Make sure,” God tells Adam, “that nothing goes wrong on your watch. Take responsibility for my garden and all who are within.”

When Eve was enticed by the serpent, she compounded her sin by failing to own up to it. Instead of pleading guilty, she points her the finger at the snake. Adam too. He compounded his sin by failing to take responsibility for his actions. Instead of pleading guilty, he pointed his finger at Eve and at G-d.

It was Adam who was charged with וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ , the responsibility of preserving the integrity of the unsoiled garden. And yet he is wholly unable to step up and recognize his own failing.

Have you discerned the connection to Cain? It’s this shortcoming, this inability to accept responsibility that spills over into the next generation. Why does Cain kill his brother? Perhaps it’s jealousy; perhaps a fit of rage; perhaps a misunderstanding. What is certain, however, is that Cain fails to develop past the missteps of his parents. When Adam sins, God says אַיֶּֽכָּה – where are you? – in the hope that this will provide Adam an opening to explain his guilt. When Cain sins, God performs the same kindness. He begins each encounter with a question. He opens the door to a conversation in which the guilty party has a chance to accept responsibility for what he has done wrong, to enter into Teshuvah. Instead, Cain answers with his infamous rhetorical question: הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי – “Am I a שומר? Am I the responsible party? Am I my Brother’s keeper?” The remainder of the Book of Bereshit is essentially the long-winded answer to this question – an exploration of the evolving ethic of what it means to be a שומר. When we meet Abraham, the Torah never explicitly tells us why he is elected to be the father of the Jewish people. Later, though, Hashem drops a hint. In his revelation to Isaac in Bereshit 26:4-5, Hashem says, (more or less)

"Yitz, you’ll be a great nation in the merit of your father because He listened to me – וַיִּשְׁמֹר֙ – he was a Shomer. He took my commandments, my laws and my teachings to heart. He took responsibility for my instructions, for himself and for those people around him.”

Adam and Cain are Abraham’s narrative foil. It’s where they fail that Abraham succeeds. He constantly steps up to take responsibility: For his wife, for his children, for his nephew lot, for visitors, for the residents of Sodom. . . The list goes on. Time and again, it’s through his capacity to accept responsibility – even when it’s not expected that he will – that Abraham rises to greatness.

This was a lesson that Joseph finally learned in Egypt taking responsibility for his family and for Egypt during the famine. And Moshe learned it from a burning bush. Both men took responsibility for B’nai Yisrael. Heck, Shifra and Puah, Ruth, Judith, David, Solomon, and so on. All of the positive narratives in the Bible involve someone stepping up as God’s Shomer, being responsible to and for Torah and Mitzvot, and being responsible for B’nai Yisrael.

All of these narratives involved people who made mistakes, like us, they were only human. But the point is that they chose to accept responsibility for those around them, for every member of our people.

Shomer extraordinaire in life, Yeshua likewise took responsibility for the least, the lost and the last. He led by example showing us how to be shomrim. In death and resurrection, he took responsibility for us all, so that through Him, all could have life.

We too can accept responsibility for every member of our people. We too, can accept responsibility for all people. This is our duty as Messianic Jewish shomrim: To love Hashem and to love our neighbors of all stripes, of all creeds, of all religions, of all political parties, of all ethnicities, of all socio-economic statuses. Let’s make it our mission this year to be our brothers’ keepers, to be proactive and abreast of the most pressing needs of those in our community, our state, our nation, and our world. Knowing is the first step; acting the second. The Kotzker Rebbe once said אלהים ברא בראשית which can be translated: “Hashem created בראשית” – He created the beginning. The rest is up to us. But such is the job of the Shomer.

Shabbat Shalom.

We Are Our Brothers' Keepers!

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