Our brother’s keeper

This week we finish reading the book of Bereshit.  We answer a question asked at the opening of the book and raise a new one that will challenge the nascent nation of Israel.  The question arising from the opening of Bereshit is Cain’s famous query after killing his brother Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  

The whole book of Bereshit, in a sense, is a response to that first question posed by the killer Cain.  Ten generations later, the next major set of brothers, the sons of Noah, also have their conflicts that go unresolved.  After Noah’s youngest son, Ham, shames his father, his brothers Shem and Japheth try to preserve their father’s honour while telling him of Ham’s act.  Noah then curses the progeny of Ham as follows: “the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”  (Genesis 9:25).  Another ten generations takes us to Abraham; the conflict between his first two sons, Ishmael and Yitzchak is well known.  After separation, they come together only to bury their father.  Rabbinic tradition mythologizes the tension between Arab and Jew as first arising through this story.  

The story then shifts focus to Yitzchak and the conflict between his sons, Esau and Yakov, is also well known.  Yakov flees for his life for 20 years because of his brother’s enmity. Apparently they “kiss and make up”, although the rabbinic tradition interprets the story more guardedly.  (See Genesis 33: 1-17 and commentary thereon.)  After this encounter between the brothers, the Torah only relates one more meeting – again, when they come together to bury their father.  Rabbinic tradition uses this story to explain the ongoing conflict between the Jews and the descendants of Rome, or the West.

It takes the epic story of Joseph and his brothers, which concludes in this week’s parasha, to answer affirmatively that indeed we are our brother’s keeper.  This is made evident in the words and actions of the two main protagonists, Judah and Joseph.  Judah makes the clear commitment to put himself in jail so that his baby brother Benjamin can go free; Joseph informs his brothers that his being sold into slavery has all been for a larger purpose, so that the entire family can be sustained.  While his brothers remain wary, Joseph declares strongly, “Have no fear!  Am I a substitute for God?  Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people.  And so, fear not.  I will sustain you and your children.’  Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” (Genesis 50: 19-21).  

While Jacob’s blessing of his children in this week’s parasha shows that they each remain unique and distinct, the story reveals that despite the conflicts that arise within families and among brothers, they indeed “are their brother’s keeper”.  It is for this reason that the traditional name of the Jewish people is the “B’nei Yisrael”, the children of Israel.  Yet we have only concluded the book of Bereshit to establish our family credentials.  It remains to be seen how we will act as a nation.  

The second and more serious question of the Torah is whether we can extend the concept of being “our brother’s keeper” beyond our family to “the other”, Jew and gentile alike.     We might think the answer to the second question is as patently obvious as the answer to the first, but our deeds do not match our words.  Clearly, as much as our ancestors had to evolve for thousands of years to answer affirmatively that we are our brother’s keeper, so too we still need to evolve to understand our responsibility for all humanity.

The parasha and book ends with the ominous word “Egypt”.  Next week we will read that Egypt represents the land where we developed as a nation in slavery and oppression.  Our redemption from Egyptian slavery and our standing together at Sinai are the core events for our people.  Throughout the Torah we are constantly taught the lesson that we are never to be an oppressor, that we must be champions of justice especially for the underprivileged in our society, and that we should have one standard of law for citizen and stranger alike – all because we know what it was like to suffer in Egypt.  

Thousands of years of history and tomes of teaching of Torah by prophets and rabbis apparently falls on “deaf ears” located just above perpetually “stiff necks”.  While we as Jews have taken on the concept that “each Jew is responsible for each other Jew”, we have not been as good as extending that level of concern and responsibility to the non-Jew as well.  Just think of how the word “goyim”, which in Hebrew literally means “nations”, has developed a derogatory connotation for the gentile nations.  It does no good to respond, “but think how they treat us” if what we are trying to do is be God’s people and lead the way as a light to the nations.  I fear a world of Jewish arrogance and triumphalism.  According to the narrative of Torah, it took dozens of generations and thousands of years to learn that we are our brother’s keeper.  How long will it take us to learn that “brother” now extends beyond our fellow Jew to the rest of humanity as well?

Rabbi Jeffery Kamins

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