Are You Your Brother’s Keeper?

It can be argued that a central theme of the Book of Genesis is our obligation to care for others. Cain kills his brother Abel and when God asks him to account for himself he sarcastically answers, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” That answer is the prelude to the struggle that unfolds in the rest of the book between the various descendants of Abraham, one that culminates with Judah putting his life on the line for Benjamin and Joseph forgiving the brothers that had mistreated him. When he breaks down in tears and embraces them, he answers the question of “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with an unequivocal yes. We are not meant to struggle or live in perpetual strife with our brothers but to live in harmony.

The theme of living harmoniously with our siblings continues in the Book of Exodus, which we conclude this Shabbat with the reading of the final parasha, Pekudei. The construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) has been completed, along with the special vestments worn by Aaron and his sons who will serve as Kohanim (priests). The Mishkan will soon be dedicated and then become an active hub of religious life for the Israelites. In this context, God commands Moses to oversee the consecration of Aaron and his sons as Kohanim:

“Put the sacral vestments on Aaron, and anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve Me as priest. Then bring his sons forward, put tunics on them, and anoint them as you have anointed their father, that they may serve Me as priests. Their anointing shall serve them for everlasting priesthood throughout the ages.” (Exodus 40:13-15)

 The verse in question seems straightforward, but some commentators wonder how Moses truly felt about presiding over his brother’s consecration as High Priest. Was he proud of him? Did he feel honored to be God’s representative in enacting such an important and powerful ritual? Or did he feel envious that his brother was being elevated to a position of prominence and power that he coveted for himself? And why, wonders one scholar, does the Torah specifically state that Moses was to “anoint and consecrate Aaron” and then add “bring his sons forward and anoint them as you have anointed their father…”? Why was it necessary to mention the consecration of Aaron’s sons separately?

“It was necessary to tell Moses to anoint the sons of Aaron just as he had their father to signify to him the spirit in which he was to perform the ceremony. Moses had not been jealous of the priestly sanctity conferred upon his brother Aaron because he, Moses, had himself been prophet and king of his people and even fulfilled the functions of high priest during the seven days of preparation which preceded the Giving of the Torah. But Moses might well have resented the fact that his own children could not have been raised to lofty position… It was for this reason that the Lord reminded Moses that when he would anoint Aaron’s sons he must do it with the same joy and eagerness as he had shown when consecrating their father.” (Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843-1926, Lithuania)

Rabbi Dvinsk asserts that Moses was not at all jealous of his brother becoming the High Priest because he enjoyed an equivalent, if not higher, position as God’s prophet. He even functioned as High Priest himself for a week. If Moses was envious of Aaron at all, it was because his nephews, the sons of Aaron, would inherit the priesthood while his own children would not enjoy any significant position of communal leadership. It was for this reason that God reminds Moses to “anoint Aaron’s sons with the same joy and eagerness” that he displayed in anointing his brother.

These commentaries ask us to reflect on whether we are proud of the success of our siblings, family members and friends and happy for them, or if their success causes us to feel envious. There is no absolute answer to such a question. At our best, we do not feel envy or resentment of the success of others, especially those closest to us. At our worst, we are bitter and annoyed when others earn or have things that we do not. Most of us are likely somewhere in between two extremes in our emotional responses to life’s challenges.

As we close out this year’s reading of the Book of Exodus, we end on an encouraging and inspirational note. We are reminded to subordinate feelings of envy when those close to us achieve success or prominence. And we are reminded to answer some of the Torah’s key questions—Are we our brother’s keeper…do we truly care about what happens to those close to us…do we care about the people with whom we share a community and the world…do we act on that caring?—with a resounding yes.




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