”I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?“ (Genesis 4:11)
My first protest, seven years old, Tel Aviv’s main square, mid 1970’s, holding up a poster demanding the release of Soviet Jews, with a spin on the oldest human question: I Am My Brother’s Keeper.
Solidarity, I learnt that day, is sacred. But also selective. Which brother do I fight for? Which one do I ignore and leave behind?
Cain’s question, labeled by Heschel as “among the great fundamental evil maxims of the world” still echoes today, too many campaigns and protests later, still demanding our moral response. But the only honest answer, tragically, is no: No, Cain, you were not, and I am not my brother’s keeper.
I wish we were.
Can any of us claim to be the keepers of human dignity and life with so much suffering and bloodshed in the world? Cain’s killing legacy of his own kin lives on, kills on, and we who do not do enough to stop the blood are implicated, careless keepers. With global privilege comes more responsibility but can we truly care for all our human siblings to the same degree?
Perhaps this “no” is the honest response but it is one that leaves us with no hope and absolves us of responsibility. We can and must do better.
And so I say to you, my older brother Cain, so bewildered by your own wounded rage, by your longing for love, that yes, you are, we are, each other’s keepers. Not just our kin and tribe, not just the bloodline. We are here to try harder, to keep growing, trying to expand our care beyond the ones we know and love. Your question echoes, and demands that each of us aspires to more, past our pains and tribes to truly love the other, brother, sister, other, all.
“We are not our brother’s keeper,” wrote Maya Angelou, “we are our brother and we are our sister. We must look past complexion and see community.”
Yes, you do know, Cain, and so do we. The only way to carry on, our foreheads marked with your reminder, is to walk this talk with you, and keep on walking, hand in hand.
929 is the number of chapters in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. 929 is a project dedicated to creating a global Jewish conversation around the central text of our Jewish heritage, the Tanakh. 929 invites Jews everywhere to read Tanakh, one chapter a day, together with a website with creative readings and pluralistic interpretations, by a wide range of writers, artists, rabbis, educators, and more.
Come join in the conversation!
Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie is an Israeli born Jewish educator, performance artist and social activist. He is the creator of Storahtelling and the Founding Spiritual Leader of Lab/Shul NYC.