Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

In the Bible after the story of creation everything starts to go downhill. It is tough when you peak at your beginning but that seems to be the way of man. As the Bible presents it we humans lived in perfection in the Garden of Eden, until we ruined it and were expelled from Eden. Adam and Eve procreated and produced the first family. There were two brothers Cain and Abel. As they matured and developed different career paths, each decided to thank God with a sacrifice. Abel gave willingly and joyously of his best and Cain offered produce but with a begrudging attitude. Abel’s offering was happily received by God, but Cain’s was not and Cain became jealous and angry. Cain slays his brother and when God comes looking for Abel, he asks Cain where his brother is and Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God never answers the question.

If I asked my son where his sister was and he asked me if he was his sister’s keeper, I would answer,

“Yes of course you are. We are family and we look after each other”. When Cain asks the question his expectation of the answer is, “no, you are not your brother’s keeper.”

As I said, we peaked early and seem to be going down hill ever since. It is not a straight line down; we have moments of goodness before we inevitably return to the downward trajectory.

In World War 2 the American public was called upon to join in the war effort for the sake of winning the war. They accepted higher taxes, with food and other items rationed. They were called upon to join industry in ways they had never done before. Many women and African Americans were encouraged to enter the job market and produce planes and tanks and guns and bullets. Americans were encouraged to save money and buy war bonds and millions answered the call. Women stopped being Betty Crocket and joined the industrial workforce as Rosie the Riveter. Everyone changed, adapted, rethought old ideas, roles, and stereotypes because they recognized that we were all in this together and our own and our country’s future depended on it. This is an example of how the whole country accepted that we were our brother and sister’s keeper.

Then the men all returned from the war that we won together, and things turned downward again for women and African Americans.

We are again in a war for survival as people and a country against a new enemy, Covid 19, and we are being asked again to be our brother and sister’s keeper and we are failing miserably.

All our doctors, public health officials and scientists are asking us to participate in this war to help out our front line “troops” and our entire population, by practicing social distancing and wearing a mask. Its not a hard ask.

It is a relatively easy “hardship” with a big upside, but what do we see? Millions of people are not obeying. When I see tv pictures of hundreds gathering at water parks, beaches, bars and nightclubs all standing side by side and with no masks I want to shout out and ask the question? When thousands sit together at a Trump rally with no distancing and no masks, I want to ask the question. When churches defy the laws that require social distancing and masks, and bus in hundreds of worshipers; or Hasidim attend religious events without distancing or masks, I want to scream out from the scripture, “Are you my brother’s keeper?”

In church or synagogue you answer,” yes”, but in real life when you behave like this you answer, “no”.

When President Trump goes out in public and does not wear a mask because he thinks it makes him look weak, how is he looking out for his brother or sister? He can afford to be a big shot as he is tested every day or two, along with Vice President Pence. Don’t they know that as leaders they teach and protect others by modeling behavior?

The greatest leader in the Bible is Moses and how is he referred to in the text? Not as a big macho man, not as a warrior or a financial wizard, but as the most humble man in the whole world (Numbers 12:3). To President Trump I say that Moses would have been the first to wear a mask because his whole life was being his brothers’ keeper.

To Vice President Pence I would ask, Would Jesus have worn a mask? Of course, he would, because he understood blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit and others, who looked to those more powerful than them to keep all their brethren safe.

In a war for both survival in good health, and a war for equality with an end to racism, we need to reaffirm that we are all brothers and sisters and must therefore pledge to be each other’s keepers. This is not the time to again go downhill, but rather rise and elevate all mankind so we may yet taste a little of Eden in this world.

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Rabbi Paul Plotkin

Rabbi Paul Plotkin

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I am a retired Conservative Rabbi. I was a pulpit Rabbi for 40 years. I supervise a chain of kosher Delis called Ben's .