“Am I my brother’s keeper?”

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Yes!
(Genesis 4:9) Tevet 10, 5781/December 25, 2020

When we ask someone a question, we expect to receive an answer. But sometimes the answer is not forthcoming. Such was the case when Cain, having just slain his brother Abel, answered G-d’s question, “Where is Abel your brother?” with a question of his own: “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)

Cain didn’t receive an answer from G-d because it was a question that omniscient, all-knowing G-d could not answer. It was, and remains a question that only man can answer. Clear as it was that G-d was every bit as invested as was Cain in receiving an answer to the question, G-d was kept waiting twenty two generation of man before He received the answer to Cain’s question. Only man can answer the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The compassion and responsibility required to care for a fellow human being’s welfare must come from within. But clearly, being our brother’s keepers is a prerequisite for any human cohort, whether biological brothers, or brothers in faith, neighbors, fellow citizens, or fellow members of humanity. We all have compassion, we all step up to the plate to come to one another’s aid, we all feel a responsibility to be there for one another.

It seems only natural. But we all also experience bouts of jealousy, envy, disdain, selfishness, vanity, prejudice and antipathy toward one other. These negative impulses which pull us apart are also natural. It’s all part of being human, of being invested by G-d with a free will and the ability to choose our own path, for good or for otherwise. From the story of Cain we come to learn that being one’s brother’s keeper was not automatically understood. Man had to grow into an understanding that we all need to look out for one another, and even today, when everyone knows the answer to Cain’s question, we witness epic failures of man to be there for his fellow man.

Perhaps G-d expected, when He created man and commanded him to be fruitful and multiply, that being our brothers keepers would be the obvious default human behavior. We can only imagine G-d’s crushing disappointment when, one generation into human existence, brother killed brother and didn’t even comprehend, without G-d’s intervention, that he had done anything wrong. This was G-d’s second disappointment, as it were, following Adam’s decision to defy G-d’s will, eat the forbidden fruit, and go it alone in the world.

G-d understood that to for creation to realize its full potential, to be infused with G-d’s presence and with man’s knowledge of G-d’s presence, these two unforeseen blips in man’s nature had to be overcome. Man had to learn to live with G-d. And man had to learn to live with man. These twin challenges are what fuel the first twenty three generations of man, whose story is told in the book of Genesis.

Rediscovering man, who first hid from G-d in the Garden of Eden, was G-d’s first task. And this ultimately occurred only when “G-d tested Avraham, and He said to him, “Avraham,” and he said, “Here I am.” (ibid 22:1) The ensuing test of the binding of Yitzchak which concluded when “Avraham named that place, HaShem will see, as it is said to this day: On the mountain, HeShem will be seen,” (ibid 22:14) when the moment when man and G-d embraced.

Man and G-d were once again in the same place, together. But what about man and man? Brothers were still unable to live together. Yishmael was banished from Yitzchak’s presence, Esau swore to kill his brother Yaakov, and the hatred Yosef’s brothers had for him threaten to tear asunder the embryonic community of man who walks with G-d that G-d is so longing for and has promised to Avraham, even before it has a chance to be born.

G-d knows that the cure will be painful, but as we witness reading the saga of Yosef and his brothers, He is very busy working behind the scenes putting events into place that will help to facilitate the reconciliation of Yosef and his brothers. The brothers are envious of Yosef the dreamer.

Nevertheless, Yaakov instructs Yosef to “Go now and see to your brothers’ welfare.” (ibid 37:14) Yosef loses his way, but tells a stranger “I am looking for my brothers.” (ibid 37:16) The brothers, seeing Yosef in the distance, plot to kill him, only to sell him into slavery.

That’s the end of the story until the brothers meet up again with Yosef in Egypt, and Yehudah, having sworn to Yaakov to guarantee the safety of his brother Binyamin, is compelled, in the opening of this week’s Torah reading, Vayigash, to confront the all-powerful Yosef, come what may, and perform the ultimate act of responsibility toward his brother.

At last Cain’s question, the question that not G-d, but only man can answer, is answered with a resounding “Yes! I am my brothers keeper!” The brothers huddle together, hugging and kissing, and G-d is surely with them. When brothers dwell in peace together, G-d is always with them, with us. The book of Genesis is nearly completed, and G-d’s two first concerns have been positively resolved.

Man has learned to live with G-d and man has learned to live with and care for his fellow man. Resolving these two crucial issues, however, has required bringing Israel and his sons down to Egypt, exiled from their promised land. Turning the reunited brothers into a nation and leading them back to the land of Israel is the next challenge with lies ahead. That challenge is the book of Exodus.

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