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.




Joseph the Tsadik

As we conclude this year’s reading of the Book of Genesis on Shabbat morning with the final portion, Vayechi, we will read of the deaths of Jacob and Joseph. Jacob, though seemingly a flawed person, has the status of revered patriarch, with his name prominently mentioned along with his father and grandfather in our daily prayers. But how is Joseph remembered by our tradition? A smash hit Broadway show is not bad, but actually the rabbinic sages give Joseph an honorific title—they call him Joseph the Tzadik, the Righteous One. A question worth asking is why he merits this distinction.

A variety of Talmudic and Midrashic answers are there for us to consider. Here are a few examples:

  • Joseph was a “tsadik” because he obeyed his father willingly.
  • Joseph’s righteousness was due to his moral standards. He refused to be intimate with Potiphar’s wife not because he was afraid he would get caught but because he felt it was simply wrong (the Midrash embellishes this side of Joseph by telling stories of how numerous Egyptian women who were married threw themselves on him but he consistently refused their advances).
  • Joseph was righteous because he was God’s agent in implementing the Divine plan to relocate the Israelites to Egypt, setting the stage for their enslavement and eventual redemption. Through all he endured, he never lost his faith in God.

At this week’s Torah study class, we came upon what might be the best explanation of why Joseph was considered to be a righteous man. Despite living outside of the Land of Israel, he maintained his Jewish identity and passed it down to his children.

In this last portion of the Book of Genesis, we find the blessing that Jacob, near death, bestows on his Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe. We recite these very words every Friday night when we bless our sons at the beginning of the Shabbat meal—Y’simcha Elohim K’Ephraim V’chi-Menashe…May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe. The question is, why does the Torah tell us to bless our sons in the name of Joseph’s two children and not in the name of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? One modern Torah scholar, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ginsberg (1885-1946, Russia and America), says the following:

“Why specifically as Ephraim and Manasseh? The reason is that Jacob realized that the time of the exile of his descendants was approaching, and he knew that in exile their Jewishness was in great danger. He therefore blessed them that they should be as Ephraim and Manasseh – the first Jews who were born, grew up, and were educated in exile – and yet in spite of that, they “are mine” – they remained faithful to the House of Israel, just as Reuven and Shimon.”

Rabbi Ginsberg tells us that Ephraim and Menashe are role models to be emulated, so much so that the Torah mandates that a blessing be offered in their names. They were the first members of Jacob’s family to be born, grow up and be educated outside of Israel, yet they retained their Jewish identity. We could infer that Joseph deserves the credit for this, and therefore should be known as a tzadik (perhaps Rabbi Ginsberg, who lived in Russia and the United States, saw a great many people giving up a Jewish way of life).

The Torah tells us that the destiny of the Jewish people is to live as a nation in the Land of Israel. And we are blessed to live in a time of history that has seen the reestablishment of Medinat Yisrael, the modern State of Israel. But despite the Torah’s message about our destiny to live in Israel as a nation, it became our fate to make our home in a great many places around the world other than Israel.

Jacob’s sons were the first “Diaspora Jews.” Our history relates that the Jewish people returned to Israel a few generations after Joseph and developed there as a nation, but exile soon followed. For over 2,500 years Jews wandered the earth in search of a place to call home that would be safe. We’ve been compelled to find the right balance between assimilation and isolation, always seeking a way to preserve our tradition while struggling to survive. Joseph is credited with being a tzadik, a person who devoted himself to preserving the traditions of his ancestors and passing them faithfully to his children. We ought to ask ourselves if we are also a tsadik in the same way.

Savoring Genesis

A friend of mine, who is also a rabbi, once tried a new way of reading the Torah in his congregation. He chose to follow an ancient form of the triennial cycle in which the Torah was divided into 150 portions and read consecutively over a three year period. (The modern triennial cycle divides each portion into thirds and reads the first third of every portion in the first year of the cycle, the middle third in the second year and the last third in the third year.) In the ancient cycle, a congregation would begin reading the Book of Genesis in the fall, right after Sukkot, and instead of finishing the book in 10 weeks would finish it in six months. My friend experimented with this ancient cycle but ultimately abandoned it because his congregation thought it was awkward to be out of sync with the Torah reading cycle followed by the rest of the world.

It was a nice idea, though, because it enabled the congregation to dwell on many of the stories and lessons in the Torah without feeling rushed. As my friend once told me, “while the rest of the world is reading about animal sacrifices we’re still savoring the juicy stories of Genesis and Exodus (of course, while the rest of the world was on Numbers and Deuteronomy they were “savoring” Leviticus!).

I feel that way about the Book of Genesis. There are so many wonderful stories and messages contained in each portion that it’s a shame to pass them by so quickly. This week’s portion—Lech Lecha—is a good example. The parasha spans chapters 12-17 of Genesis. There’s simply too much material to read and study all of it. Usually there’s one D’var Torah offered during the synagogue service, and maybe those who attend a class or a meeting will hear a second D’var Torah. Once we finish reading the parasha in the synagogue on Shabbat morning, we set it aside until we return to it next year.

One thing we can do to savor the stories of the Book of Genesis is to spend some extra time reading and studying on our own. There happen to be many books on the Genesis narratives. Some of them are written by psychologists, some by scholars, and some by lawyers. So I encourage you to acquire some of these books and spend some time delving into the juicy stories of Genesis during the next couple of months as we read this fascinating book in the synagogue. I guarantee that you’ll find something of meaning to enhance your life and your relationships with family and friends.

Below are some of the better books on the stories found in Genesis. Most of them are very readable and accessible. Pick one or two and get ready for some enjoyable insights into everyday life.

Self, Struggle and Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights For Our Lives

By Norman J. Cohen

The Beginning of Wisdom

By Leon Kass

Wrestling With Angels: What the First Family of Genesis Teaches Us About Our Spiritual Identity, Sexuality, and Personal Relationships

By Naomi Rosenblatt

The Genesis of Justice: Ten Stories of Biblical Injustice That Led to the Ten Commandments and Modern Law

By Alan Dershowitz

Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths

By Bruce Feiler

The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis

By Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

Genesis: A Living Conversations

By Bill Moyers

The Genesis of Ethics: How the Tormented Family of Genesis Leads Us to Moral Development

By Burton Visotzky

Our Fathers’ Wells

By Peter Pitzele

And…no list of books about Genesis would be complete with a wonderful book by Oheb Shalom’s own Ada Feyerick. Genesis: World of Myths and Patriarchs is a marvelous book about the civilizations that gave rise to the world of Genesis.