27 Tishrei 5773 / Oct. 12-13, 2012
We begin the Torah again this Shabbat by reading the first portion, Bereshit. In addition to the traditional Jewish view of how the world and humankind were created (note that there are actually two different creation stories in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 respectively – in one of them, Adam and Eve are created simultaneously, and in the other, Eve is fashioned out of Adam’s rib), we find the earliest case of sibling rivalry – that of Cain and Abel.
The Torah states that Abel was a shepherd while Cain worked the land, and that after a period of time, each brought an offering before God, who partook of Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. As a result, Cain was distressed and killed his brother Abel. When confronted by God, who asked Cain if he knew where Abel was, Cain responded with the famous line: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” [Genesis 4:9]
Both theologians and secular philosophers have long struggled with this very simple question. As human beings, do we owe some sort of duty to one another?
To what extent are we meant to be keepers of our families?
Of our friends?
Of the people of the Jewish community at large?
Of the people of the world at large?
The Jewish tradition makes it clear that we absolutely, 100%, owe a duty to other human beings.
For example, the Torah creates protected classes of people:
“You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their cry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” -[Exodus 22:21-3]
In addition to consciously treating widows and orphans well, lest we suffer Divine wrath, our tradition actually mandates that we love our neighbors as ourselves:
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” - [Leviticus 19:18]
Rabbi Akiva, one of our greatest sages, is attributed as having said [in the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Nedarim, page 30] that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the most important rule in the entire Torah!
Now admittedly, things could get a bit tricky if we were truly charged with loving everyone else the way we love ourselves. What would this mean for the sharing of sparse resources, for example? Are we simply meant to share everything we have with everyone else in need?
Maimonides (AKA the “Rambam”), the prominent medieval rabbi and philosopher, outlined eight different types of charitable giving, and organized them hierarchically. The top and best form of charitable giving, according to Maimonides, is to actually provide someone (or help someone acquire) a job. While this may not initially seem like charity in the sense that we contemporarily understand it, it’s impact is similar to the adage of giving someone a fish so s/he can eat for a day as being less valuable than teaching someone to fish so that s/he can eat for a lifetime.
As Jews, our tradition makes clear that we owe a duty to our fellow human beings. We are indeed required to be our brothers’ keepers. We are charged with protecting those who need protecting, loving others as we do ourselves, and finding meaningful and impactful ways of enhancing the lives of those around us with our charitable endeavors.
What better message could there be as we start reading the Torah again from the very beginning?