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Are We Our Brothers’ and Sisters’ Keepers?

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5769 talk by Rabbi Norman Janis

Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a new year in the Jewish calendar – the year that we call 5769.  According to Jewish tradition, this will be the 5769th year since the Creation of the World as told to us in the Book of Genesis.  On Rosh Hashanah, we look forward with hope that our lives will be good in the new year just beginning.  And our holiday itself celebrates the anniversary of the created world that we live in, where the stories of our lives unfold.

This evening, we are also beginning ten days of repentance that lead up to Yom Kippur.  We are embarking on a countdown to the Day of Atonement, the day of at-one-ment, the day of reckoning with ourselves and with our wrongdoings.  On Yom Kippur, we will do heshbon hanefesh – a spiritual accounting of ourselves.  Our tradition imagines that day – the tenth day of the New Year – as an awesome and terrifying Day of Judgment – a day when God examines each of us and decides the fate of each person in the coming year:  “who will pass away and who will be born, who will live and who will die;” and so forth.  In the current economic crisis, we may note that the list also includes “who will be poor and who will be rich.”

For me and for many of us, this evening is also part of another countdown – not a Jewish countdown but an American countdown – an anxious countdown to another awesome day of judgment:  electoral judgment.  Five weeks from tomorrow is Election Day.  On that day, the people of the USA – not God, just people – will judge who is to be our next president and, as is sometimes said, the President of the Free World.  Many of us can’t help regarding the decision about to be made as extremely critical, with very significant consequences for us as individuals and as a society. I agreed with Hillary Clinton when, at the Democratic National Convention, she said:  “We don't have a moment to lose or a vote to spare.  Nothing less than the fate of our nation and the future of our children hangs in the balance."

Senator Clinton’s words have a religious ring, as though she were quoting from one of the Hebrew prophets.  That Biblical ring is not accidental.  In recent years, the use of religious and even Biblical language has been increasing in American political discourse.  Barack Obama, too, in his acceptance speech at the DNC,  was unmistakably drawing on the Book of Genesis when he declared the promise of America to be “ the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.”

The phrase “my brother’s keeper” is taken, of course, from the story of Cain and Abel in chapter 4 of the Book of Genesis.  Cain’s killing of Abel is the first instance in the Biblical narrative of one human being’s harming another.  In the narrative context of Genesis, when Cain asks “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” it is something new in the Biblical story,  a new question is being asked for the first time in a newly created world. 

The phrase “my brother’s keeper” has long served formulaically in arguments about one person’s responsibility toward another.  Yet, despite its long-standing use in political and ethical discussion, this phrase has not, in popular usage, lost its connection with the Cain and Abel story.  When Senator Obama employed the phrase “I am my brother’s keeper,” he was not only making a political point; he knew he was also invoking the religious feelings of his hearers and their knowledge of the Biblical story.

Even though I resonate with and respond positively  to Senator Obama’s use of the Biblical phrase “my brother’s keeper,” I do not regard Jewish holidays as occasions for overtly partisan speech, and I do not to intend to be campaigning this evening.  On the other hand, it feels quite appropriate on this holiday, as we celebrate the Creation of the world as told to us in Genesis, to consider the uses to which the Bible is put in the political discourse that is swirling around us, and to wonder whether the Bible is being misused and misunderstood in that discourse.  The title of my talk this evening is “Are We Our Brothers’ and Sisters’ Keepers?” 

The Biblical story of Creation culminates and climaxes with the creation of human beings fashioned in the image of God.   But the Biblical God is not visible and has no image that can be apprehended by our senses.  What’s more, God, according to Jewish tradition, is not even knowable.  So perhaps we should not be surprised if the statement in Genesis chapter 1 that human beings are created in God’s image does not immediately provide us with a clear idea of what these first human beings are like.  It is only in succeeding chapters that we get some idea of their nature.  In chapter 3, we gather that the Creator has not innately endowed these first human beings with all the knowledge that we regard as characteristically human.  In their Edenic state, the first human beings have often and persistently been characterized as innocent.  But what we more plainly understand when we read Genesis chapter 3 is that  these Edenic human beings are ignorant:.  They have no knowledge of pain or of death or of the difference between good and evil.  In the course of the chapter, they acquire that knowledge, so perhaps to learn and to know is to lose one’s innocence.  In any case, it is by acquiring knowledge that the first created human beings start to seem more fully human – grown-up people that we can recognize as like ourselves, living lives like ours. 

In chapter 4, one of their two sons is jealous of his brother, gets angry at him, strikes and kills him.  When called to account for his slain brother’s whereabouts, Cain says:  “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”  What does Cain mean? Is he being defiantly sarcastic?  We may easily think so, since his word “keeper” brings to mind other words like “jail-keeper” “house-keeper” “dog-keeper” or “bar-keeper.”  We can surely hear great sarcastic power in Cain’s asking whether he should be treating his brother Abel like a dog or like the inmate of a prison. 

But what is this word “keeper” that we find in every Jewish and Christian translation?   The Hebrew word translated as “keeper” is shomer. It has a range of quite positive meanings, including “guardian,” as in shomer Yisra’el (“guardian of Israel”) and “vigilant observer and preserver” as in shomer Shabbat. So it might be presumed that the right answer to Cain’s question is “Yes, you are supposed be your brother’s shomer.  You are supposed to take care of him, to guard and preserve his life.”  Hundreds of utterances issuing from church and synagogue pulpits bear out the presumption that the right answer to Cain’s question is “Yes.” And that right answer is enshrined in the names of religious organizations that you can readily find online, like “My Brother’s Keeper, A Volunteer Christian Ministry, serving southeastern Massachusetts.”  

But somehow, away from pulpits and outside of religious organizations, in common parlance and ordinary situations,  the notion of “my brother’s keeper” has considerable negative resonance.  It sounds priggish, pious, censorious, interfering, paternalistic.  It reminds us of goody-goodies and know-it-alls and tattle-tales, of autocrats and bureaucrats demanding obedience and submission, crushing our healthy appetities, our life-enhancing instincts, our ability to enrich and satisfy ourselves.  “My brother’s keeper” can sound an awful lot like Big Brother.  “We will take care of ourselves, thank you very much,” is one common reaction.  “We don’t want Big Brother government.” 

Has Senator Obama reckoned with the negative response – or at very least the ambivalence – that the phrase “my brother’s keeper” can easily evoke?  Let me twist Senator Clinton’s words around to make my point:  “Nothing less than the fate of our nation and the future of our children hangs on the ambivalence of Americans about being their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”   

I will return to Cain’s question and its presumed right answer, but first I would like to have a look at the influence and effect that another saying, this one pseudo-Biblical, exerts in political and ethical thought and conversation.  The saying I have in mind is “God helps those who help themselves.” 

On May 15, 2005, a few months after George W. Bush was inaugurated as president for a second term, the Times ran a piece by Nicholas Kristof entitled “Liberal Bible-Thumping.”   Here are a couple of his statements in that piece:

    ...one of the biggest mistakes liberals have made has been to forfeit battles in which faith plays a crucial role.  Religion has always been a central current of American life... 

    Liberals can and should confront Bible-thumping preachers on their own terms, for the scriptural emphasis on justice and compassion gives the left plenty of ammunition.  After all, the Bible depicts Jesus as healing lepers, not slashing Medicaid. 

Two days later, the Times published some responses to Kristof’s column, including this letter from a woman in Pike Road, Alabama:

    Nicholas D. Kristof must have a different version of the Bible than I do.  Mine calls for individual responsibility and action, not for a government to take money from people who produce and distribute it to others to make liberals feel good about themselves. 

What Bible was this woman reading?  Where does she, along with probably tens of millions of Americans like her, get her ideas of what the Bible calls for?  Has she read the Five Books of Moses, in which we are repeatedly commanded to take care of those who are powerless and in need, and in which we are told not to keep all the harvest of our land for ourselves, but to leave the corners of our field for the poor and for the stranger? And remember that these injunctions are addressed to the organization of society as a whole.  They are not simply suggestions for individuals who may feel like giving to charity. 

Has that writer to the Times read the psalms of David, where we learn that God gives bread to the hungry and is the guardian (the shomer) of strangers and of the orphan and the widow?  Has she read Isaiah, who tells us (in a passage that we read on Yom Kippur) to share our bread with the hungry, to take the homeless into our home, to clothe the naked when we see him and not to turn away from people in need?  And are not the utterances of Jesus, too, as  portrayed in the Christian Gospels, most definitely in this Biblical tradition of concern for those who are not in a position to help themselves?

In April of this year, the Washington Post ran an article that offers a clue to the thinking behind the letter I have just quoted from that woman in Alabama, a kind of thinking that I have long thought to be widespread in this country.  According to the article in the Post, a national survey has found that 82% of all Americans believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible. 

Their belief is false, of course.  Not only does the Bible not say “God helps those who help themselves,” it contradicts that statement over and over again -- in Torah, in Prophets, in Psalms and elsewhere, including Christian Gospels, as I have just been trying to show.  But we can infer from the national survey that there are many millions of religious Americans who think of themselves as good people, who see themselves, in the way they conduct their lives, as guided by a Bible that tells them “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but who are also very comfortable being ignorant and / or doing nothing about the needs and troubles of other millions of Americans.  In addition to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” their Bible also tells them, or so they think, that “God helps those who help themselves.”   Are they supposed to be their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers?  Their Bible tells them No.

The survey tells us that this pseudo-Biblical religious viewpoint prevails widely in these United States, perhaps even among a majority of our voters.  That may be one of the  reasons why the fate of our nation is hanging in the balance.  Let’s imagine a latter-day Cain, a person who doesn’t want to be taxed to provide universal health care.  Imagine him or her being asked about what happens to millions of uninsured Americans when they become seriously ill.  “I don’t know.  I’m not exactly sure.  There must be emergency rooms they can go to! But shouldn’t those people have taken better care of themselves and accumulated enough wealth for their needs  They should be helping themselves.  How can I be the keeper for all those people?“ 

If this neo-Cainian point of view that I am sketching is really as widely prevalent as the survey seems to show, and if it is perhaps one of the reasons why the fate of our nation is hanging in the balance – well, what is to be done?  It would be unfair, not to mention impolitic and ineffective, to demonize all people holding such a point of view.  Many of them, I suggest, regard their point of view as a principled one, based on what the Bible says and on what their religious teachers tell them – their ministers and preachers and their rabbis.  And yes, I mean rabbis, too!  Remember that in the codes of rabbinic law, the foundations to this day of halachic decision-making and of rabbinical preaching, the “neighbor” of “Love your neighbor as yourself” is defined as your fellow Israelite.  You are not obliged by Jewish law to regard non-Jews as your neighbors or your brothers and sisters, even when they are powerless and in need.

The fact that I am calling this prevailing point of view neo-Cainian does not mean that I think those who hold it would directly harm their neighbors as Cain did his brother.  The belief that God helps those who help themselves does not generally stop our citizens from rushing to the aid of an immediate neighbor who is in distress – or to the aid of a member of their community, or even to the aid someone whom they do not personally know, but whose name and face have caught their attention and sympathy in the press or on TV.  The people whose keepers they don’t want to be are people they don’t know or don’t care to know.

Let’s go back to the Book of Genesis for a moment, and look at Cain’s response to God’s calling him to account for his brother’s whereabouts.  Let us note not only Cain’s counter-question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” but also the 1st part of Cain’s response – “I do not know.”  We can all recognize “I do not know” as a way of conveying innocence, whether real or feigned. 

If “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is defiant and sarcastic, then “I don’t know” is too.  Effectively, it then means “I don’t care.”  But what if, in Cain’s mind, his question is a real question, an innocent question?  After all, is he really sure what happened when he got angry at his brother Abel and struck him?  Nothing like this has ever happened before.  What does he know of anger and its consequences?  Has he ever heard the words “Thou shall not kill”?  Those words have not yet been uttered in the Biblical narrative, and no situation has yet arisen to prompt their being uttered.  Cain may be a grown man biologically, but in terms of moral development, he is like a small child.  “I don’t know,” we can imagine him saying.  “Am I supposed to be my brother’s keeper?”  Am I supposed to be keeping him from harm?  No one has ever told me that.  Am I supposed to know what would be harmful to him, or that my anger could result in the spilling of his blood?  This is all new to me.”  Ignorance of the law is said to be no excuse, but, when there is no law, maybe ignorance is a genuine excuse.

At any rate, God’s response to Cain seems to validate the legitimacy of Cain’s excuse.  When Cain realizes what he has done and what the consequences will be for himself, he cries out “My punishment is too great to bear!”   He fears that now anyone can kill him with impunity.  God responds sympathetically by putting upon Cain a mark – the mark of Cain – which will protect him from those who may want to kill him.  God seems to be acknowledging that, in the absence of prior warnings about the harm people can do to one another, Cain truly was ignorant about what he had done and was therefore, in some sense, innocent.  Later in the Bible story, God will take responsibility for providing moral guidance by entering into covenants of law with human beings – first with Noah after the flood, and then with Moses and the people of Israel at Sinai. Once those covenants have been sealed, people may still sin by harming other people, but they can no longer claim ignorance; they are no longer innocent.

People like to hold on to their innocence and their ignorance.  “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”  “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.”  Many people don’t think it is their concern to make sure that  everyone has health insurance and enough to eat and legal protection and other important things in life.  I think those people are holding on to their innocence by keeping themselves ignorant of who all those other people are.  If they knew them, they might feel compelled to respond to their troubles, and that would be inconvenient to say the least.  It might be exhausting, and it would certainly be costly.

How does one break through ignorance and innocence?  Charitable organizations try to do it all the time by presenting pictures of actual individuals with individual faces  who are the victims of whatever condition they are trying to combat. You know the kinds of pictures I’m talking about.  I assume this is a reasonably successful technique. 

As I have interpreted the Genesis story, God’s way of recognizing ignorance as the background for what Cain has done bears some resemblance to Barack Obama’s way of portraying John McCain’s political positions:

    Now, I don't believe that Senator McCain doesn't care what's going on in the lives of Americans; I just think he doesn't know.  Why else would he define middle-class as someone making under $5 million a year? How else could he propose hundreds of billions in tax breaks for big corporations and oil companies, but not one penny of tax relief to more than 100 million Americans?  How else could he offer a health care plan that would actually tax people's benefits, or an education plan that would do nothing to help families pay for college, or a plan that would privatize Social Security and gamble your retirement?  It's not because John McCain doesn't care; it's because John McCain doesn't get it.

Now, we may have our doubts about the truth of Obama’s diagnosis or about the effectiveness of this apparently generous portrayal.  At the same time, we can acknowledge that there is a long and honorable tradition behind Obama’s way of explaining human indifference to injustice and the suffering of others.  In Plato’s Republic, for  example, when Socrates is confronted with the Might-makes-Right doctrine of Thrasymachus, he employs his famous dialectic method to arrive at the conclusion that Thrasymachus’ doctrine is based on ignorance of ultimate reality.  In the Book of Jonah, which we hear read every year on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, God prevails upon a very resistant Jonah to go to the wicked city of Nineveh, that mortal enemy of Israel, and declare prophetic truth to the corrupt people of that city, in an attempt to break through their evil mindset and their evil way of life.  And – what d’ya know? – if those sinners don’t hear God’s truth and start tearing their clothes and covering themselves with ashes and repenting!  Al Gore seems to be making a similar attempt with respect to global warming. 

Maybe people can relinquish their illegitimate innocence; maybe their ignorance can be penetrated; maybe each of us can learn to be what Cain didn’t think he needed to be:  a shomer – a guardian, a keeper – for the people around us  and for the world we live in. 

The  project of dispelling ignorance and illegitimate innocence has been around for a few thousand years.  Its aim is to get us all to be looking out for each other and to acknowledge that yes, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.  Each of needs to be a shomer for those who are not in a position to help themselves. 

It would be foolish to assume we were going to see the completion of this project in our lifetimes.  Jewish tradition teaches:  “It is not up to you to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it.”   I take these words to heart, and what they mean for me right now is doing my darnedest to contribute my own efforts to the great electoral challenge that lies before us in the coming weeks. 

And that is my Rosh Hashanah message, my declaration of striving towards teshuvah utefilah utzedakah – my turning towards penitence, prayer and good deeds – the three things that our Machzor declares will help get us through the severity of the decree:  ma’avirin et ro’a hagezerah.

Leshanah tovah tikatevu!

May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year!