June 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

After the first case of murder in history, the murderer was confronted by God Himself.

“Where is your brother, Hevel?” God asked. To which Cain, the murderer, responded. “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Bereishit 4:9).

In what follows next, we, as students of Tanach, learn for the first time that there are certain behaviors the land itself simply won’t tolerate.

“Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! Therefore… if you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth” (Bereishit 4:10-12).

The land rejected Cain. The land that, the Tanach tells us, was forced to absorb the blood of the innocent, rejected the one responsible for the violence. And so, as we learn about the very origins of humanity, the Tanach communicates one of its most important truths. Our existence on the land is contingent on our ability to “take care of our brothers.” Should we fail, the land will reject our right to inhabit it.

This concept, revolutionary and unique to monotheism, is reiterated numerous times throughout Sefer Devarim. It articulates an inextricable link between our worship of God, our responsibility toward our fellow human beings, and the fulfillment of our destiny as a people. Our religion, Moshe reminded us, as we stood perched to enter the Promised Land, demands that we build a society free of idols, but also one that is free of injustice and exploitation. It is a religion that tells us to sacrifice to God in the Temple, but also to take care of the poor and the vulnerable. Before he died, Moshe reminded us that the only way to truly worship God is by being good and kind and fair to each other.

But sometimes that’s easier said than done. And after entering the land, we began to lose sight of that fine balance. Ritualistic behavior began to overshadow the ethical, and we began to prioritize our imagined service of God over the wellbeing of the people standing right next to us. In the famous haftarah that we read on this Shabbat right before Tisha B’Av, we see the desperate attempts of Yishayahu HaNavi to communicate just how perverted our conception of religion had become. “God doesn’t want empty sacrifices or lengthy prayers,” Yishayahu claimed. He wants you to “aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow” (Yishayahu 1:17). More than anything else, Yishayahu tried to tell us, God wants us to be tolerant and generous and just. But we didn’t internalize what Yishayahu said. Violence and corruption persisted. And eventually, in 586 BCE, and then again in 70 CE, just as it had rejected Cain, the Land of Israel rejected us.

But, as Yishayahu prophesied, it also allowed us back. And after thousands of years of exile, the words of comfort offered by Yishayahu are now manifest in the very streets that he once stood. As Yishayahu promised we have returned to our land and, once again, we can build a society founded on the religious principles formulated in Sefer Devarim. Once again we have the opportunity and the obligation to build the society Moshe envisioned—one in which our right to remain in the land is ensured by our understanding that before anything else, we are our brothers’ keepers.


Yael Leibowitz teaches at the Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Learning and the Pardes Institute. She is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).

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