This week we finish reading the book of Bereshit. We answer a question asked at the opening of the book and raise a new one that will challenge the nascent nation of Israel. The question arises from the opening of Bereshit is Cain’s famous query after killing his brother Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The whole book of Bereshit, in a sense, is a response to that first question posed by the killer, Cain. From Noah’s sons, to Yitzchak and Yishmael, to Yakov and Esau, conflicts abound.
It takes the epic story of Joseph and his brothers, which concludes in this week’s parashah, to answer affirmatively that indeed we are our brother’s keeper. This is made evident in the words and actions of the two main protagonists, Judah and Joseph. Judah makes the clear commitment to put himself in jail so that his baby brother Benjamin can go free; Joseph informs his brothers that his being sold into slavery has all been for a larger purpose, so that the entire family can be sustained. While his brothers remain wary, Joseph declares strongly,
“Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them (Genesis 50: 19–21).
While Jacob’s blessing of his children shows that they each remain unique and distinct, the story reveals that despite the conflicts that arise within families and among brothers, they indeed are their brother’s keeper.
The second and more serious question of the Torah is whether we can extend the concept of being “our brother’s keeper” beyond our family to “the other”, Jew and gentile alike. We might think the answer to the second question is as patently obvious as the answer to the first, but our deeds do not match our words. Clearly, as much as our ancestors had to evolve for thousands of years to answer affirmatively that we are our brother’s keeper, so too we still need to evolve to understand our responsibility for all humanity.
The parashah and book ends with the ominous word “Egypt”. Soon we will read that Egypt represents the land where we developed as a nation in slavery and oppression. Our redemption from Egyptian slavery and our standing together at Sinai are the core events for our people. Throughout the Torah we are constantly taught the lesson that we are never to be an oppressor, that we must be champions of justice especially for the underprivileged in our society, and that we should have one standard of law for citizen and stranger alike – all because we know what it was like to suffer in Egypt.
Thousands of years of history and tomes of teaching of Torah by prophets and rabbis apparently falls on “deaf ears” located just above perpetually “stiff necks”. While we as Jews have taken on the concept that “each Jew is responsible for each other Jew”, we have not been as good as extending that level of concern and responsibility to the non-Jew as well. Just think of how the word “goyim”, which in Hebrew literally means “nations”, has developed a derogatory connotation for the gentile nations. It does no good to respond, “but think how they treat us” if what we are trying to do is be God’s people and lead the way as a light to the nations. I fear a world of Jewish arrogance and triumphalism. According to the narrative of Torah, it took dozens of generations and thousands of years to learn that we are our brother’s keeper. How long will it take us to learn that “brother” now extends beyond our fellow Jew to the rest of humanity as well?