Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 12 – For Whom Are We Responsible? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
by Edward Rettig
Sometimes it is important to discuss the basics, right and wrong. The Bible can be of great help. “Toward whom do we have responsibility?” is the heart of the first question posed to God by a human in the Biblical narrative. Cain asks it of God, so it is the murderer’s question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Overall, the Bible presents a gritty view of the killing of Abel. Murder resulted from jealousy. God “respected” Abel’s offering of the fruits of the ground. The Creator “had no respect” for Cain’s offering “of the firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof.” God sought to guide Cain, to strengthen his ability to fight the temptation to sin, but the Creator leaves the decision to Cain arguing that a human tempted by sin “may rule over it.” The result is disastrous.
It seems odd that the text conveys no direct response by the Creator to Cain’s taunting, snarky question. Perhaps the answer is so obvious it does not require iteration. The very posing of the question is the best indication of how depraved Cain’s understanding is of God’s moral universe.
God punishes Cain for the murder of his brother in a manner the criminal finds unbearable – “And Cain said unto the LORD: ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, Thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the land; and from Thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth; and it will come to pass, that whosoever findeth me will slay me.’… And the LORD set a sign for Cain, lest any finding him should smite him. And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.”
But the story does not end there. While the text tells us nothing of Cain repenting, apologizing, attempting to compensate his parents or otherwise make amends to them for his sin of killing their son, or anything we might recognize as the rehabilitation of a criminal, Cain goes on to take a wife, found a city and become the progenitor of an extensive portion of humankind. All in all, he has quite a satisfactory career. Abel remains dead.
From Cain and Abel, we learn the first lesson in human responsibility toward other humans and its relationship with deadly violence. The story of Cain and Abel tells us of the intimate connection between the shunning of responsibility toward our brothers and horrific consequences for the victims. It realistically shows us that the sinners, and in this case we can include the direct perpetrators alongside those who merely stand aside and watch, can go on to live quite comfortably.
The first question to God, posed by the first murderer replays itself in every generation, sadly with similar results. The mind that can pose that question in the manner posed by Cain is a mind that can murder or stand aside while murder, famine and illness are inflicted by humans on other humans.
Fundamentally, Cain’s question allows only one response: Yes! Otherwise we fail to “rule over our desire to sin,” as God tells Cain in that failed attempt to guide him after the rejection of his sacrifice. From Cain’s field where he killed Abel, through the Shoah to the killing grounds in Rwanda, this principle works as clearly as any theorem of physics. Where human beings question their responsibility toward their fellows, death follows.
The motivations toward refusal to take responsibility can vary. The Bible points to jealousy, but bigotry or indifference can be just as deadly. “When we win the war, the Jews will benefit along with everyone else” is what the Allied generals told Jewish leaders who asked to bomb the railways to Auschwitz and the gas chambers. “None of our national interests are at stake” governed the response of so many nations to the horror of Rwanda … Eritrea … Cambodia … Syria …
Shall we stand aside while innocents are murdered, starved or kept in poverty? How to be our brothers’ keeper is a complicated question to answer. Whether to do the best we can to be our brothers’ keeper is not complicated at all.
Dr. Edward Rettig represented a major American Jewish organization in Israel for many years. He currently serves as the Israel-based co-Chair of the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education and works as an independent researcher and consultant.
This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 12 – For Whom Are We Responsible? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.