As we reflect upon the High Holy Days and as the cycle of reading Torah begins anew, we ask ourselves: Can we step back from whom we have been in the last year and start fresh? But the truth is, we never lose who we have been, and we carry our mistakes with us as potential lessons. On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we had the opportunity to reflect on our behaviors—both good and bad—and we grow from the experience.
As we open B’reishit, we can take a lesson from the early history of the family of humanity. Just four chapters into the creation of the world, we read an account of violence of the worst sort—a sibling taking the life of another sibling. Now one may honestly argue that Cain did not know his action would result in Abel’s death, because no one had ever died before; the family that was exiled from Eden did not yet know about death, much less its causes. Still, Cain is held accountable for the murder of his brother and is severely punished.
Adonai said to Cain, “Where is your brother, Abel?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Then God said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” (Genesis 4:9–12) It is worth noting that in the Hebrew, God tells Cain, “Hark, your brother’s bloods cry out to Me from the ground!” Why is blood written in the plural? Perhaps it is to teach that not only did Abel die, but all of his future offspring were taken as well. I have used the following expressions with our students to teach them the power of reaching out or of hurting: Whosoever destroys a single life, it is considered as if she or he destroyed an entire world. And whosoever saves a single life, it as if she or he saved an entire world. We are reminded of the importance of a single human being and the far-reaching impact on others if one is destroyed or one is saved.
Cain and Abel are only the first siblings in a long lineage of troubled family connections in the Torah. Though no others end in actual bloodshed, the odds for biblical brotherly love appear to be quite a long shot. We can move right down the family tree and discover one failure after another: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and all of his brothers! Rachel and Leah don’t fare much better, either. Not until we meet Ephraim and Manasseh (Joseph’s sons), practically at the end of Genesis, do we encounter brothers who, as far as we can tell, get along with one another.
We know very little about Manasseh and Ephraim and their relationship, but Torah tells us that Jacob gave them this blessing, “By you shall [the people of] Israel give [their] blessing, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” What was so special about these boys that Jewish parents, even today, ask God to make their sons like Ephraim and Manasseh?
Perhaps it is less about the deeds of this famous duo and more about their relationship with one another. They are the first brothers in our biblical account to represent unity and harmony; always joined as a pair, despite the fact that the younger is placed before the older. Isn’t the ability to live in harmony the hope of all parents for their children? What’s important is not that they achieve greatness and wealth, stature and success, but that they be there for each other, through good times and bad; love each other always; and care for one another deeply.
This story can speak to all of us. As parents, we do our best to raise our children with warm love and with the ongoing encouragement to look out for one’s siblings, care for them, watch over them, love them. And when they are young, playing without a serious care in the world, we smile, hearts full and can only imagine them as devoted, loving siblings in adulthood. May you be like Ephraim and Manasseh rings true to us for our daughters and our sons, for it is unbearably painful when a healthy relationship does not come to fruition.
Relationships can be messy and complicated, not always straightforward and simple. And, yet, it is precisely in the messy dynamics of our relationships with family or friends, that we can discover significant moral insights for ourselves. Each of us is Cain, and each of us is Abel, too. We may have feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, jealousy, competition, and even some desire for revenge just waiting to explode. Underneath it all, we are similar to Cain – we seek acceptance, appreciation, and love. Yes, at our core, we yearn to be complete and at peace like Ephraim and Manasseh, but we must first untangle ourselves from the knotty ties that bind us to Cain and Abel. So, it isn’t just for our children and their relationships, but also for us.
We can see ourselves reflected in B’reishit. It provides us the opportunity to reflect on problematic relationships and ask ourselves, what are our responsibilities to our siblings and good friends despite the feeling of the moment. It also provides us food for thought in our role as parents. Looking directly at the Cain and Abel story, consider the role God played in the rivalry between these siblings. What role do we sometimes play in sibling rivalry in our own families? Did our parents lend fuel to the rivalry fire for us and our brothers or sisters? So many questions and so many lessons here to take to heart. We have choices, and choice, ultimately, is the lesson we can learn from Cain and Abel.
Peter Pitzele writes in his book on the myths of Genesis, Our Fathers’ Wells: “In the reality of linear time no one ever gets a chance to go back and do it again. Once the apple has been eaten, Eve cannot unswallow it; . . . once they [Adam and Eve] know they are naked, neither of them can return to the innocence before their ‘eyes were opened.’ Within this construct of linear time choice is its central concern. What do we do? How do we act when time is so unforgiving?” We can’t go back. Will we be sucked in by the forces of hatred and jealousy that depict the relationship of Cain and Abel, and, in fact, still drive so much of the world’s conflict, or will we be inspired to live our lives as an affirmative response to Cain’s challenging question to God, which hangs in the air unanswered: Am I my brother’s keeper? Though God does not provide an answer, the rest of the Torah seems to be in reply. Only we have the power to make that choice; to choose to be our brother’s keeper, to never allow a sibling or a friend relationship to deteriorate to a point where it can no longer be mended.
Each and every day we see conflict and violence all around us—in so many corners of the globe, in our own communities, and even in families that we know. Let us choose to know that all our lives are interconnected, that our fates are shared. Let us choose to know that we are all brothers and sisters. We must be able to be each other’s keepers, in order to bring healing to our immediate world and the larger world. And lastly, it is so important for us to note and to learn from the fact that the otherwise beautiful beginnings of humanity are marred by errors of judgment. Imperfection is part of being human: It is what we can learn from our errors of judgment that can make us more like God. Becoming better people this year than we were last year is our role in the ongoing creation of the world. Learning from our mistakes and those of our family members makes us human—b’nei Adam, “children of Adam and Eve.”