“Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4: 9) The Torah turns Cain’s protestation into the essence of Judaism.
(This D’var Torah was inspired by a D’var Torah delivered by Rabbi Daniel Nevins at JTS Rabbinic Training Institute, January 8, 2015)
As we begin reading the book of Exodus, it’s fitting to review one key aspect of the previous book, Sefer Bereshit, the book of Genesis. Normative Judaism, unlike Christianity, does not have a concept of original sin. We are all born with a clean slate, and we have free will to do good or evil and shape our destiny. Further, one can argue that Adam and Eve should not really be considered to have committed the first sin by eating the forbidden fruit because 1) They didn’t hurt anyone; 2) God bears responsibility for planting the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the first place; 3) How could God have NOT desired that humans understand the difference? As far as the direction of the Torah and Jewish tradition is concerned, the first real sin in the Torah is when Cain kills Abel. Not only does he kill him, but he denies responsibility. When God asks him אי הבל אחיך–where is your brother Abel?–Cain answers: לא ידעתי–I don’t know–השומר אחי אנוכי Am I my brother’s keeper?
Cain’s contempt for his brother and his brutal violence set a tone for the rest of Genesis. There is terrible sibling rivalry. Brothers are not their brothers’ keepers. True, we don’t see another fratricide, but we come close. Esau almost kills Jacob. Joseph is almost killed by his brothers. Even sisters Rachel and Leah have a painful rivalry, even if it is not physically violent. Brothers are not kind to brothers, sisters are not kind to sisters and brother are not kind to sisters, such as Laban treating his sister Rebecca like a piece of chattel to sell for a significant sum. Simeon and Levi’s response to Dina’s liaison with Shechem–they’re not protecting her, they’re protecting their honor through horrific violence. One chapter after another, generation after generation, and our ancestors are not their brothers’ or sisters’ keepers.
Then, suddenly, when we least expect it, there is a change. Judah breaks the spell when he stands up before Joseph and protects his endangered brother Benjamin. Joseph, in a position to avenge the brutality of his brothers from years before backs off. He relents. He says אני יוסף אחיך–I am Joseph your brother. He welcomes them into his palace in Egypt. This is the first recorded act of forgiveness in human history. Genesis closes with siblings serving as shomrim, guardians for one another. Genesis begins with a question–will siblings guard one another?After generations of struggle, by the end of the Genesis, the answer is finally yes. This resolution sets the stage for the opening of Exodus.
A new Pharaoh arises who enslaves the Israelites and afflicts them with pain. Despite the pain, the Israelites are not broken. As the narrative zeroes in on one family, we see a reason why. An infant Moses is guarded closely by his sister Miriam until he is safely in the care of Pharaoh’s daughter. An adult Moses is called upon by God to lead the people out of bondage. He’s terrified and tries mightily to avoid the task. God tries to impress him with a fiery bush not consumed by fire. God turns Moses’s staff into a snake and turns his hand white as snow only to cure it just as instantly. God presents one final ace in the hole: Moses won’t be alone. His brother Aaron will be by his side to help. Only then Moses goes forward.
Exodus presents a new model. Siblings are each others’ keepers. They support one another and care for each other. The Torah is making a powerful statement. Sibling rivalry is natural. However, when siblings are there for one another, other people who are not biological siblings are more capable of looking out for one another. Indeed, a nation is born. When a nation of disparate tribes comes together, they have the capacity to enter a covenant with God.
The power of brotherhood, sisterhood or, if you will, siblinghood is as real for us today as it was for our ancestors. This weekend we join with people of good will of all faiths and persuasions in abject horror over the brutal terrorist attacks in France this week. The massacre of at least 12 people at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the apparent murder of at least four at a kosher market in a related incident on Friday remind the world that the depravity of militant Islam knows no bounds. Every time a horrific incident like this occurs, whether in Israel, Europe, the U.S. or anywhere, we hope that maybe, just maybe, the world will finally understand the Torah’s teaching that we are all created in God’s image and that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. After all, what does it take for the world to get it?
It is easy to fall into despair when we observe such evil and horrendous violence in our world. To a large measure it’s beyond our control, and we feel powerless. And yet, time and again we answer the call of our tradition to affirm life and attempt to bring loving kindness into the world.
This weekend, our community is celebrating a historic moment in the life of our congregation. We honor the trust, the fellowship, the sense of responsibility to the Jewish people that brought together two congregations, Temple Torah and Temple Emeth, to form one vibrant congregation, Temple Torat Emet. Our new name means the Torah of truth, a powerful phrase that is found throughout our liturgy, including the second blessing we say in a Torah aliyah. How do we discover the truth of the Torah? By acting as guardians of our brothers and sisters as we see in today’s Torah reading.
Our new venture as Temple Torat Emet came about through courage, trust and a great sense of responsibility to the Jewish people. Our success in the future depends on choices we make based on the Torah’s guidance. As a Kehillah Kedoshah, a sacred community, our task is to create a sense of caring for one another as if we are all brothers and sisters. Let us build a community in which we see one another, listen to one another, rejoice with one another, and, when necessary, weep with one another. We must ensure that all activities in our building are conducted with dignity and respect. At every service and program, we must remember the higher purpose to which we are called in creating this sacred community. Our sense of community and fellowship must extend beyond the walls of this building and include Shabbat and holiday meals in each other’s homes where we will build true and lasting friendships.
Our world is, tragically, a vicious place. We need a refuge. We need a laboratory for goodness and loving kindness. That is what Temple Torat Emet must be for our community. If we can model for the broader community the meaning of shemirah, looking out for one another, we will give ourselves and the world a desperately needed gift. Let me close with the words of the Psalmist:
הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים גם יחד
“How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in harmony.”
May we be worthy of this sacred task.