Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

Early in the Torah we encounter a fundamental question with which humankind must struggle: Am I my brother’s keeper? After Cain kills Abel and God asks him of the whereabouts of his sibling, Cain blithely answers with those fateful words that have echoed across time. He wonders, cynically, why he has any responsibility for the physical and emotional condition of his brother. Over the centuries, we have struggled to understand that response. What does it mean to be a brother, and what does it mean to be his “keeper?” Are we merely flying “solo” through life, each of us making our own way in the world as best we can, watching out for ourselves and ourselves only? Or are we expected to demonstrate caring and concern for the welfare of others, in ways that are both tangible and intangible? Do we have any responsibility toward others, whomever they may be? Or does our obligation stop at our family (and, if so, to what degree) and at those for whom we might feel a measure of empathy?

The question of whether or not we are our brother’s keeper emerges again, in a somewhat different form, in this week’s parasha, Kedoshim, in which we find the familiar verse “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The commandment, which the sage Hillel chose to phrase in the negative (Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself), doesn’t clarify who exactly our neighbor is. The Hebrew text in the Torah uses the term “re’acha,” which suggests friend, companion or fellow. Is the distinction here meant to be someone who lives nearby and we see often? Does “neighbor” imply someone we may encounter in our daily routine even if we don’t know them personally?

Maimonides suggests that when the Torah uses the term “neighbor” it really means our Jewish neighbors. Perhaps that limitation on caring and consideration reflected the Rambam’s theology, or the realities of the era in which he lived. But who among us would subscribe to the notion that Jews are called on to love only other Jews are we love and care for ourselves? This week, a devastating earthquake struck Nepal, resulting in the deaths of over 5,500 people and many thousands more unaccounted for and feared dead. Shortages of food, water, housing and medical supplies are making a horrific situation worse. How could we not view the people of Nepal as our neighbors, if only in the global sense? The Israeli government has already sent aid, medical teams and a field hospital to the area. We should all do something to help alleviate the pain and suffering of the Nepalese, and I urge you to click here to donate to the Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund established by the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest New Jersey.

The question of who exactly our neighbor is and who deserves our support and caring, remains a difficult one to answer. No doubt, we can afford to be kind and considerate to everyone we meet. But the matter becomes trickier when we begin to discuss the distribution of limited funds and resources. We can’t show our love and caring in tangible terms to everyone on the world. How do we apply the “golden rule” to the distribution of charity and resources for those in need? A universalistic perspective would suggest that we ought to give to any and all human beings, wherever they may live in the world, blind to their religious affiliation. A particularistic view would hold that while we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, we can and should give greater support to the extended Jewish community. Such a position comes naturally to us, as we instinctively care for our own family before reaching out to others. Is it not logical to care for our Jewish family before reaching out to others? Some have suggested that a good rule of thumb is to give at least 50% of our resources to Jewish organizations. This is a message that our children need to consider, especially at the time they decide on a Bar or Bat Mitzvah project.

It’s worth asking: If we do not give a measure of priority to Jewish causes, who will? And if Jewish causes aren’t supported by the Jewish community, what will happen to them in the next generation?

P.S. My weekly Torah class, held on Mondays from 9:00-10:00 AM, will meet on May 4, 11 and 18.

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