How strange, in many ways, to begin the Torah cycle this week as Israel faces its most challenging moment in decades. What can one say about the idea of creation when so much is being destroyed? Will this be a pivotal moment in history when mankind, seeing the evil that we have witnessed on TV screens and social media, rises and pledges “no more”? Sadly, history seems to dictate otherwise.
But there are messages in this week’s portion that speak to us with a direction quite relevant to what we are seeing. This is a Torah portion that has within it some of the great and most profound questions of existence, not the least of which comes to us toward the end of the portion. It is after the stories of Creation, after the drama of Eden and the great expulsion. Look at Genesis 4. This is a tale of great moral challenge; it is the drama of Cain and Abel. It is the powerful verse of 4:9 that comes right after Abel’s murder by his brother, after God asks where Abel is, and Cain responds with: ha’shomer achi anochi? -am I my brother’s keeper?
This story is one of the great stories of the Torah. It is also one of the great human questions that haunts us daily. Are we responsible for our fellow human beings? How hard is it this week to even contemplate this question? In the face of the horrors of this week, how can we even begin to think of being responsible for other human beings? No doubt, those of you who will attend a Torah study this Shabbat may focus on this question. Is there any way we can begin to comprehend this question? Perhaps, as we are able to peer into the text, we can maybe see a pathway to meaning. But we have been trying for eons, with only slow progress.
Yet, the question begs the answer of how we may be able to create a theology of responsibility. The short answer to Cain’s response to God is “yes”, you are responsible for our fellow human beings. So much of history is a testimony to the fact that we have yet to believe this and practice it. Think about what would happen if we all answered that “yes” to God’s question. It is more than just saying “here am I” (heneni). This question is a call to act humanely, to see that tzelem Elohim in everyone. We are responsible and it is a call that most of society shuns. Lip service is never real service. Each of us is called to create our own particular theology of responsibility.
This invitation also stems from this week’s portion. This portion, with its’ opening theme of creation, is an invitation to partner with God, no matter how you choose to define that concept, in the work of creation. We do not do this alone (Genesis 2:18). Having the gift of life is a call to be responsible. So much of modern life is a focus on the individual. All too often we worship at the altar of personal autonomy. Yet, in a way, let me suggest that this portion, and the Cain-Abel drama, remind us that society can only progress is we work together and see this sense of communal responsibility. Failure to see this results in much of what we see today and the price for that failure rises daily.
Rabbi Richard F Address
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.