THE BLOG
10/15/2014 01:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Others, Brothers

The first big question that is posed in the Bible is when God asks Adam: "Ayeka--Where are you?"(Genesis 3:9). This is not the divine GPS gone awry; physical location is of no interest to God here. This one-word query in Hebrew is the spiritual and existential question par excellence. And since it is asked in reference to wrongdoing -- eating of the forbidden fruit -- it has a moral dimension as well. The answer is, of course, the first human shirking: Both Adam and Eve pass the buck and point the finger.

The next looming interrogative comes when God asks Cain: "Ayeh Hevel achikha?--Where is Abel, your brother?"(Genesis 4:9). Here, too, geography is not on the radar screen. This is the quintessential social and ethical question. And, like his parent's answer to the first question, Cain's answer is to duck-and-cover. Sounding like a petulant teenager, he actually answers the question with a question: "Hashomer achi anokhi--Am I my brother's keeper?"

Is this question rhetorical? Perhaps not to Cain, but to the reader, familiar with his recent murderous actions, it becomes the eternal byword of all ethical obtuseness or indifference.

We can take these two questions as the warp and weft of our spiritual and moral lives. First, we are asked to ascertain our own whereabouts: Where am I? Where am I in relation to my self, my life, my world, my values? What is my place? Right on its heels, though, comes the call to be aware of the situ-ation of my br/other. In Hebrew, the connection is also close in sound and spelling: "brother" is ach, and "other" is acher. From my situatedness in relation to both self and other comes the moral responsibility for that other, who is of course also my sibling in very real, if distant, biological terms.

What do we learn from this reduplicated divine-human Q&A? First of all, many think of the Bible as Divine truth(s) about exemplary human beings. Yet here we see that biblical figures might be no less valuable as moral teachers precisely as the highly imperfect personalities that they are, from whose failings, shortcomings, and mistakes we can profit. Are we our brothers' keepers? Hell, yes. Denying or ignoring that -- giving in to destructive urges stemming from jealousy, envy, rivalry, and strife, -- brings on the curse of Cain.

Moreover, while God (and religious texts) are sometimes portrayed, and perceived, as offering us ultimate answers, the place to go to put an end to our questions and our questioning, we see that perhaps what we should be looking for are not the answers but the right questions. Answers to these (and other "big questions") are often temporal and contingent; it is the questions themselves that are eternal and foundational.

The late 20th-century scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel wrote that more than human theology (what people think about God), the Bible is "God's anthropology" -- a God's-eye view of people. It seems that that view of us includes a knack for hitting the nail on the head in raising personal, pointed challenges. But besides its portrayal of God as skilled at pithy, challenging questions (see also for instance the book of Job, chapters 38-41), one of the great purposes the Bible can serve for us today -- much more relevant and valuable than as a source of dogma or metaphysics -- is as a resource and a spur to get us to challenge ourselves and each other with hard questions, questions that ring out across the millennia with the most fundamental questions of human moral responsibility.

The denizens of the Bible in some sense had it easy -- a Divine interlocutor forced them to confront their immediate situation and its moral challenges. We have the echoes of those questions in our texts and our traditions. We have parents, spouses, teachers, critics, publicists and therapists. And most important, we have each other, to be supportively critical, and to help us ask ourselves the really hard and thus the really important questions. Those questions were there at the Beginning, and they are with us still today, asking us to take account of our own moral location and of the obligations called forth by the situation in which we find others. Where are you? And where is your brother, your sister, your other?

Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.

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