We Are Our Brothers' Keepers
Parasha Bereshit 5780
Now raise your hand if you do not have a brother - okay, lower your hands.
Most of you know my family and know that I do not have a brother, at least not by blood. But that is a biological answer. Torah would have us answer differently.
Parashah Bereishit really sets the table for so many things that play out throughout the rest of Torah. Two of many examples include the introduction of sin and death into the human story by Adam and Eve -- and Cain. Murdering his brother, as depraved and horrific as that is, becomes even worse when we hear the way he responds to God’s question, “Where is Abel, your brother?” To this, Cain spits back in retort, “Lo Yadati. Ha-shomer 'achi anochi?” The traditional translation sees Cain's reply as petulant, with a complete absence of responsibility (mimicking the lack of responsibility in both Eve and Adam’s responses to God back in the Garden) “I do not know.” Cain says, “Am I my brother's keeper?”
Cain seems to either not understand the enormity of his crime or not care and he certainly doesn’t express any responsibility for his brother or for his (Cain’s) actions.
We are set up ingeniously here. Baited, to answer Cain. The narrative begs us to intervene and shout back through the eons in disbelief: “Of course you are! What were you thinking?! How could you take his life?!” By posing—and leaving unanswered—Cain’s audacious question, the Torah compels us to articulate this fundamental moral principle for ourselves. It prompts us to experience our response as an intuition as primal as Cain’s violence against his brother.
While the Torah leaves this outraged response to us, it does not leave Cain’s question completely unanswered. Instead, it follows a more subtle course. At the close of Cain’s story, the Torah recounts the generations between Adam and Noah, from which Cain is conspicuously absent. After Abel’s murder, Adam and Eve beget another son, Seth. Seth, in turn begets Eh-nosh, who begets Kay-nan, who begets Mahalal-el, who begets Yar-ed, who begets Cha-noch, who begets Metusalach, who begets Lemech, who begets Noach, from whom, as survivors of the flood, we are all descended.
What is the value of this odd literary device, this recitation of 10 generations? There is a midrash! This midrash recounts a discussion between Sages in which they debate the fundamental principle of Torah. Rabbi Akiva, born just a few years after Yeshuah’s death, maintained that the greatest principle was Vayikra’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? To this, Ben Azzai responded that the recitation of the generations of Adam to Noah is the greater principle.
Say again! What does he possibly mean? Despite the golden rule’s catchy jingoism and ability to fit in a fortune cookie, Ben Azzai is saying that that Bereshit‘s recitation of our common ancestry underscores the depth and breadth of our responsibilities to one another even more powerfully than the golden rule of love your neighbor as yourself. After Cain, the Torah starts human history over again. Seth is born, and it leads us through the generations of begettings, impressing upon us that our history is fundamentally a relational one that is rooted in a common ancestry, a single family of humanity. And in this original familial relationship resides our profound responsibility to one another. The recitation of the generations of Adam trumps the golden rule as the “greater principle” because it clarifies the subject of the golden rule’s ethical imperative.
“Let there be no mistake,” these begettings seem to say. “The ‘neighbors’ for whom you must care are not only the people around you, but the entirety of this large, unruly human family from which each of us are a lucky, and burdened, descendent. Each member of this human family is your ‘brother.’ And no one, therefore, are you free to abandon or harm.”
This section of the Torah, the recitation of the generations of Adam, thus challenges us to allow God’s question to Cain—”Where is Abel, your brother?”—to reverberate throughout the millennia. It demands that we pose this question with the awareness that, in the eyes of Bereshit, all humanity is descended of one family. (And interestingly, genetics seems to be telling us the same thing.) It compels us to pay attention to the words of the question—to recognize that it is not only a query about Abel’s whereabouts, but an insistence that Abel is our brother too.
Yeshua teaches this same principle in his ministry. Eating with tax collectors, speaking with prostitutes, visiting the sick and the lame, Yeshua makes a point to be inclusive at all times and with all people: men, women, children, even lepers. Love your neighbor as yourself. Yes, he recites that. But He goes beyond and demonstrates who his neighbors are, throughout his ministry. His actions and His words insist that we have familial responsibilities as Jews to each other and as siblings to ALL.
So as common descendants of Adam, we are not free to shed our brotherhood with Abel. We are simply not at liberty to allow the gulfs created by human divisions (be they national, cultural, linguistic, religious, racial or gender differences) to obscure our responsibility to those who are hurt or in need or who are otherwise marginalized. Instead, we must step up to this burning question whenever it is asked and answer resolutely: “I am my brother’s keeper.”
So what does this look like, practically? It means we must work towards peace between people, while at the same time not shirking our responsibility to protect the weak. It means not taking advantage of others and it means we must work on being inclusive. It means helping others in need, whether you agree with them or not, simply because it’s the right thing to do. It means giving Tzedakah/charity but even more so, it means helping a stranger change their tire on the side of the road. It means giving $5 to the homeless guy to go buy a burger so he doesn’t starve. It means opening our borders and sheltering refugees instead of putting them into prison and building walls. It means confronting bullies, no matter how big, and standing up for the downtrodden. It means giving people the benefit of the doubt. It means listening, and supporting, and helping. It means stepping outside of our comfort zones and proactively looking for ways to assist others, to protect others, to love others.
Often, there is no one closer than siblings who grow up in a healthy, happy home. They are best friends. At the same time competitors and yet allies. Confidants. They know each other better than anyone… at least until they get married. Siblings don’t always agree and can get into some real knockdown, drag out fights. But, underneath they still love each other. They know each other’s stories and they make each other laugh. And when we embody the principle of love thy neighbor as thyself where we treat everyone we meet as our brother or sister, wow! What a wonderful world that would be.
Messiah showed by example. Yeshua took responsibility for the least, the lost and the last. And He took responsibility for us all reversing Adam, Eve and Cain’s sins by accepting death, so that through Him, all could have life. We too must accept responsibility for all people. This is our duty as Jews, as Messianic Jews and as Christians: To love Hashem and to share our mission of mutual responsibility. 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, of all sexual orientations, and of all colors. It is our duty, because they are our brothers and we are our brothers’ keepers.
Last year for this parashah, I spoke about our duty to be Shomrim, responsible for each other. I suppose I just did that again.
So this year, may we step up to His call at all times and respond, I am my brother’s keeper.