Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Our brothers’ keeper — Letter from the Rabbi

A famous phrase from a Torah reading this month has set me thinking about the nature of our responsibility towards each other. Two brothers, Cain and Abel, bring thanksgiving offerings to God. Perhaps one brother is more generous-hearted than the other, for we read that God accepts Abel’s gift, but not Cain’s. Hurt and jealous, Cain kills his brother – and then seeks to evade responsibility.

But God always calls on us to take responsibility, and demands of Cain: “Where is your brother Abel?” In a chilling response, Cain answers: “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” It is an extreme kind of individualism that could claim a person is not responsible for what happens to his brother, that “each man is an island” responsible only for himself.

It seems to me that different people have very different visions of who they are responsible for. Cain took the most extreme view, trying to shuffle off any idea that what happened to his own brother was any concern of his. Others might say they feel responsibility for their close family and friends, people they love. What do you think? Perhaps it should be enough to limit our feelings of responsibility to those in our own circle, but we know that some people go much further. Indeed, don’t we sometimes demand that others feel a sense of responsibility?

When residents – especially Holocaust survivors – talk about the Holocaust, they frequently ask: Where was God? But residents also raise another question: Where was the rest of humanity? It seems that much of the world did not feel a sense of brotherhood with Hitler’s victims, and did nothing to stop the mass murder. (On the other hand, we have the heroic example of the people we call the “Righteous among the Nations” who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis.)

I am reminded of another time Torah uses a form of that word keeper. Many of you have been present with me when I have asked God to bless you, in the traditional formula from Torah. The blessing starts: “May the Lord bless you and keep you” (or we could understand it as “protect” or “look after” you).

Does that mean I can leave it to God to look after you and everyone else? Of course that’s not how we understand our relationship with God – or with humanity. Ascribing to God qualities such as compassion and justice should inspire us to live by these qualities ourselves. And if we ask God to look after people, then we should know that we have a duty to look after people. We are the keepers of our brothers and sisters. So many of the ethical teachings of Torah imply this, such as the way we are commanded to look out for the interests of the widow or orphan, or the stranger (immigrant), or our employees.

To be the keepers of our brothers and sisters in America or around the world is a tough doctrine for all of us. So often we’d rather bury our heads in the sand and not get involved with the needs or dangers that others are facing. It’s so much easier to turn off the television news, and forget. Wouldn’t we all, quite often, rather say: I am not my brother’s keeper: What happens to him is not my responsibility.

But there are so many stirring examples of people who do care, who do take responsibility for others. Eleanor Roosevelt championed the establishment of a Jewish State, and advocated for African Americans. Many people actively campaign for the rights and safety of others, and some even put their own lives at risk, like those young Jews who stood with African Americans in their struggle for civil rights in the 1960’s.

I believe that one of the foundations of this Home is the sense that we are all responsible for each other. I see it in the generosity of our donors. And when a resident looks out for the needs of other residents – or staff – doesn’t that come from a sense that we are the keepers of our brothers and sisters? Humanity is at its greatest when we know this.

Rabbi Anthony Elman Rabbi Anthony Elman is the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Jewish Home and also serves as Rabbi of the Home's Grancell Village campus. His professional background is multifaceted, encompassing the fields of law, social work, and psychotherapy. Rabbi Elman has been with the Home since his ordination and graduation from the Academy for Jewish Religion-California in May 2007