YOUR BROTHER'S KEEPER
The Torah attaches great significance to the behavior and treatment of brothers towards each other. The Torah presents six sets of brothers whose conduct ranges from optimal to dismal.
The Torah attaches great significance to the behavior and treatment of brothers towards each other. The Torah presents six sets of brothers whose conduct ranges from optimal to dismal. In this article, we will trace the often rocky road of relationships between these sets of brothers, and attempt to identify the triumphs, the tragedies, and perhaps gain some insight for our generation, which finds itself painfully fragmented and distant from its brothers. (Please see Chaim Saiman's Think Tank seven weeks ago on Parshat Vayechi (volume 4, issue 3) entitled "Sibling Rivalry" where this subject was briefly raised.)
Unable to tolerate his brother's existence, Cain commits the first murder in history when he disposes of his younger brother, Abel. Divine retribution is swift, as Cain is sentenced to a life of exile and banished from society. There can be no excuse for such a deplorable act, yet Cain sarcastically responds with the infamous reply, "Am I my brother's keeper?" The answer for Cain and for all of humanity is yes, you are your brother's keeper. You are responsible for his care and well-being, notwithstanding any differences in personality, opinion, or outlook.
With the next set of brothers, we find an antagonistic relationship. Yishmael, son of Hagar, mocks and derides his younger, half-brother, Isaac. Through prophecy, Sarah understands that Yishmael must be banished. His continuing harassment of Isaac constitutes an unacceptable threat and burden on Isaac's spiritual growth and development as the next patriarch. With a heavy heart, Abraham sends Hagar and her son away. Brotherly coexistence suffers a second time.
The twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, begin struggling early in their mother's womb. Esau strives for physical superiority in this world. Jacob is concerned with spirituality and the next world. Ideally, the two are meant to compliment each other as a team. Esau, however, defaults from his responsibility. Jacob is left to his own resources to manage both roles, combining the material and physical in his service of Hashem. After Jacob receives the blessing from his aged father by surreptitious means, Esau's feelings towards his brother turn bitter, and Jacob must flee for his life to the house of Laban.
Twenty-two years later, on his trip home, Jacob and Esau meet. Jacob is apprehensive and braces himself for the worst. Surprisingly, Esau embraces and kisses his brother. This may be a genuine moment of reconciliation and regret for the past, or just a fleeting emotion. Esau offers to join forces with Jacob. Jacob, however, gracefully declines the offer. The two brothers part company once again, headed their separate ways.
We next encounter the longest sustained narrative in the Torah, the story of Joseph and the brothers. The adrenaline runs high as the favorite son of Jacob becomes embroiled in conflict with his ten brothers. They later judge Joseph unfavorably, believing that his dreams of dominance represent an unauthorized power play and that he poses a threat to the family. The brothers' judgment, though motivated by sincere intentions, is flawed due to the taint of jealousy and hatred, as recorded by the Torah. The brothers cast Joseph into a pit and later sell him into slavery.
This conduct strikes a severe blow to the future of the nation, since Israel is based upon a complete structure of twelve, represented by the twelve brothers. The absence of one jeopardizes the whole. Joseph, wishing to effect a reconciliation with his brothers, devises a scheme to retest their sincerity and determine whether they have learned from the past.
In a passionate plea for Benjamin's release for an alleged crime of taking Joseph's royal cup, the eldest brother, Judah, offers himself as a substitute for Benjamin, realizing now that the responsibility towards one's brother is absolute. This heroic act mends the rift between Joseph and the brothers, and allows for the continuation of Jewish history.
The next set of brothers are Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Menashe. They portray a new level of brotherly love and cooperation that merits the special recognition and blessing of Jacob. They are elevated to the status of membership in the twelve tribes. Despite a favoring of the younger brother by Jacob, who purposefully diverts his right hand away from Menashe, the firstborn, and places it upon the younger Ephraim, Menashe bears no ill will towards his brother. These brothers stand out as models for future generations to emulate. The pattern of rivalry between brothers is finally broken.
Next in line are perhaps the most illustrious pair of brothers in Jewish history: Moses and Aaron. Moses declines the urging of Hashem to serve as leader of the Jewish people for fear of slighting his older brother, Aaron. Only after Hashem assures him that Aaron will be glad in his heart does Moses accept the elevated position. The dynamic sibling relationship of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam is of such towering magnitude that, suffice it to say, in their merit we were given the Torah, the manna, the clouds of glory, and the miraculous well of water.
The highest achievements of Man can be realized only when brothers are true to their calling. Discord and rivalry not only damages individual relationships; it strains the fabric of the entire nation. Needless to say, the basics are difficult to apply in the trenches of everyday life. Past mistakes are difficult to remedy. Nevertheless, the challenge of reuniting brothers and sisters is the challenge of our generation.
An instructive approach can be taken from the relationship of David and Jonathan. Jonathan, son of King Saul, heir to his father's throne, lends his support to his beloved friend, David, who he believes is more qualified for kingship. This strange and unique relationship runs contrary to the wishes of Jonathan's own father. Despite this and a multitude of other reasons which could have driven them apart, they stand together, recognizing the value of a deep and lasting friendship based on a mutual recognition of the outstanding qualities of the other. David and Jonathan consider themselves bound as brothers. Their love is so sincere and strong that Ethics of Our Fathers considers it to be the epitome of a true love relationship, free of any ulterior motive. (For further insight into the extraordinary relationship between David and Jonathan, please see Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein's article, "Moonlight," on page 294 of the Torah from Dixie Book.)
According to Rabbi Pinchas Stolper (founder of the NCSY youth organization), who vocalized many of these thoughts in a recent lecture, the Hebrew word echad (one) contains the word ach, which means brother. Brotherhood is the key indicator and expression of unity. He lamented the lack of unity among our people as an intolerable condition which must be eliminated in order to clear the way for the speedy arrival of the Mashiach (Messiah). He urged everyone to search for remedies to the problem at every level at every possible opportunity.
As a people, we do not have the luxury to exist as separate groups. The structure and integrity of the Jewish people is holy and must conform to Divine standards which are patterned after the heavenly hosts. The task of reconstituting the original structure of our people is a formidable endeavor. Whether our generation has the insight and ability to meet this challenge remains to be seen. In the meantime, progress can be made on a smaller scale, beginning at home and working outward - from the individual, to the family, to the community, and beyond. We are the keepers of our brothers and sisters. Each of us is charged with the responsibility of being the guarantor for the other. We are commanded by the Torah to love our fellow Jew as ourselves. This level of care and concern places a heavy burden on every Jew to follow in the footsteps of those outstanding brothers in our history, like Joseph, Menashe, and Moses, who were willing to support their brothers even at the cost of personal sacrifice should it become necessary.
The beauty of brothers standing together is praised by King David in Psalms as follows: "Behold, how goodly is a gathering of brothers who are also united." In our liturgy, the entire house of Israel is referred to as "our brothers". We hope and pray that Hashem gives us the wisdom, compassion, and ability to reclaim our relationship with our brothers and sisters, and to stand together again as one people, with one heart and one soul, as we did at the foot of Mt. Sinai. If we can accomplish this goal, then we will most certainly strengthen ourselves and hasten the coming of the Mashiach, speedily in our days.
Steve Lerner writes from Atlanta.
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