Cain has just killed his brother in a fit of jealousy. It takes the Torah all of three and a half chapters – from the unfolding of the entire cosmos, to the creation of the first humans – and wham! the first murder takes place. Where Abel succeeded, Cain failed. What Abel has, Cain wants. Cain allows his jealousy to overtake him and he kills his brother.
As Abel’s blood cries out from the ground, God asks Cain a question – a question that is not really a question – “Where is Abel, your brother?” Adonai is not asking where Abel’s body is. The question is inviting Cain to show remorse for what he has done. But instead of meeting the call to show up in truth and responsibility, Cain answers with a question that is not really a question. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
What a failure of response! What thick denial and dismissal. It’s a question that echos throughout history and is a live question in our world right now – “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Am I the keeper of my fellow human being? Am I the guardian of other people’s protection and dignity? Am I the steward of this planet and the lives that depend on its well-being?
While the Rohingya people of Myanmar are being slaughtered and are fleeing for their lives, while thousands of people are endangered by hurricanes on a planet that is warming and unable to absorb the rising floodwaters, while a renaissance of hate is newly alive in public words and actions and government policies, am I my fellow’s keeper?
Judaism is clear in giving a resounding YES! to our shared responsibility and responsiveness. Our mitzvot direct us with concrete actions to pursue justice, to protect the vulnerable, to ensure that resources are shared, to take a holy pause every week from constant consuming and producing, and to affirm every sacred life. There’s no question that Judaism holds high standards for not causing harm and for actively loving our neighbour and stranger and parents and future descendents, but right now, in this climate of greed and deception and suffering, I am struggling with how to show up. I’m going to guess that I’m not the only one. How do I live into what this wise tradition is asking of me? How do I personally say – Hineni – Here I am, awake and ready to respond in a painful and complicated world?
I love that our tradition is demanding and clear in its values. I love that as our world changes, as our understandings change, that Judaism evolves its vision of justice as well. But then there’s the mess of me. And the mess of you.
Let’s acknowledge that there are so many ways that each and every one of us already shows up in actions of compassion and justice. You already have a big heart. You already have wisdom and skills. What I want to explore are the edges where we feel our limits, where we are blind and unskilled, where we get stuck feeling like more than this is beyond me. More than this is what other people do. This year, I want to us to learn how to help each other stretch beyond what we’re used to. These’s no one model or method, but, to use Naomi Klein’s phrasing from her book No is Not Enough, together I want us to grow wiser and more effective, united and focused on a rigorously hopeful vision to win the world we need.
Here’s where I turn to Moses. More than any other biblical archetype, he becomes the corrective to Cain’s apathy. Am I my fellow’s keeper? Moses learns to answer YES through 3 things that I want us to learn – readiness, reluctance and relationship.
First – readiness. When Moses says, “Hineni” – the Torah’s powerful affirmation of presence and readiness, with this one word, he pulls himself out of a bubble of oblivion. For the previous several years, the future great liberator of the Israelites hasn’t been doing much. He has not been taking workshops on organizing or studying the politics of intersectionality. He has not been reading the works of Rabbi Heschel or Dorothy Day or Che Guevara. Moses has been living in the wilderness among the Midianites, tending sheep and building a family – a quiet, private life cut off from the oppression and suffering he fled from.
Then one day, a wondrous burning bush sparked his attention and he got woke. Moses was tending sheep in the wilderness and he noticed a bush that was all aflame but the bush was not consumed. He said, “Asura nah ve’er’eh – I will turn aside and see – what is this marvelous site?” That turning was the turning point. Moses opened his eyes. He observed something that broke through his expectations and pulled him to look more closely.
According to Midrash, the bush had been burning for generations, waiting for someone to notice and respond. Learning to pay attention is a radical practice and it houses the seeds of liberation. I will turn aside and see.
Sometimes what we need to see is painful and hard to take in. Sometimes what we need to see is a beauty that recasts this world with wonder and precious importance. The decision to turn and see is a commitment to ask – what am I currently not seeing, and then, deciding to turn, looking up from the four walls of my personal life to see, suddenly, a wider reality and know that this is what I am called to respond to.
Then, from the heart of the bush Moses heard the voice of the Holy One calling, “Moshe. Moshe.” And Moses answered “Hineni”. Here I am – waking from habit, from a dream, from a self-induced coma. I practice seeing as a conscious act. I feel called because now I see, and then heart of readiness arises. Friends, waking up can happen in an instant. Hineni. Can we be students of this lively seeing and responding?
Second, reluctance. I find it such a relief that Moses’ next step was NOT to throw on a superhero cape and leap to the rescue. He may have said Hineni with awakened clarity, but as soon as he heard what was being asked of him, a flood of excuses pour out of his trembling mouth. ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites?’ ‘What if the Israelites don’t believe me or listen to me?’ ‘Who am I supposed to say sent me? ‘I am not a man of words. I’m heavy-tongued and slow of speech.’ ‘Please send someone else.’
One second Moses thinks he’s having a mystical chat with a thorn bush and the next thing he knows, he is told he will have to do everything that scares him most – go back to Egypt; challenge an entire system of abuse and greed; lead a people who feel broken and hopeless. Everything in him cries out – ‘Don’t make me do this.’ Maybe you know this feeling. I do.
I want to learn from Moses’ reluctance because I think that it is very wise. He knows exactly what he fears most and he says it out loud. Insightfully, he knows the mess of his own heart. This step is essential. Who doesn’t wrestle with feeling like a fraud sometimes? Who doesn’t feel overwhelmed by our smallness next to the enormity of the work? In order to show up for the world that we need, we’re going to need to do, what we don’t feel ready for. As activist and educator Tim Jackins said, “The causes of the crisis are very large. The solutions will have to be large, too. We will have to do more than live careful lives.”
So we need to attend to the resistance in our hearts because if we don’t, we either won’t try at all, or we will muscle our way into trying to be good or trying not to feel like frauds, and our actions will come out as harsh and self-righteous.
As Moses offers to God each thought of inadequacy and fear of failure, it stops being his private shame and self-defeat. His fallible humanness is held with compassion.
Then God is able to offer a way to move forward despite the fears. God tells him – Gather the elders. Take Aaron with you – he will be your mouth. I, Adonai, I will be with as you speak. I will instruct you what to say. Ki eheye imach (Exodus 3:12 ) – because I will be with you. I will be with you. The God of liberation, the God of moral courage, the holy intimate Whole of Life is with you, every step of the way.
And this is the third aspect – relationship. Who will you need to you gather with you, to show up with you, arm in arm, so that you can step forward, brave and clear? How will you nurture your connection with the deep and vast current that carries you, the sacred Presence that walks with you, the Great Love that guides you?
Moses learns relationship by remembering who he is. He is being called by the God of his ancestors, called into relationship that reaches back generations before him and extends a promise ahead of him. He is reminded that he’s part of an unfolding story that’s so much larger than his singular life and it’s time for him to step into it with both feet.
He has to recognize that he is an Israelite and the people who are suffering are his family. He has to recognize that he grew up in Pharaoh’s palace and the oppressors are his family. Friends, this is always true. Those who suffer are our family. Those who oppress are our family. We all have the capacity to do terrible things when we feel threatened or hurt or when we are cut off from relationship with one another. To win the world we need, we have to wake out of the delusion of separateness, to the realization that we are interconnected, interdependent Echad – One.
We are all so fragile and vulnerable. I can say that every human life is sacred and worthy but it’s another thing to behave every day, rooted in the tender-hearted empathy and vigorous justice of that truth. It is a conscious practice to see each other through this lens. In order to do this, we will need to build close and strong relationships. We will need to connect our lives with people from all kinds of ethnicities and beliefs and class backgrounds. We are going to need to listen to each other and know each others’ lives. We’re going to have to get all up in each other’s business, and not give up on each other, and love the hell out of each other. And then we’ll need to challenge each other and love each other more. The bad stuff is going to keep happening. And it could very well get worse.
Okay. Here’s my proposal – Let’s make a commitment to be our fellows’ keeper in braver, fiercer and big hearted ways. Let’s turn and see and be alive with readiness. Let’s feel all the resistance but refuse to let it stop us. Let’s do what we don’t feel ready for and let’s get ready together so we can grow the world we need. I will be with you. You will be with me. Hineni.