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Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

08/15/2017 04:43:12 PM


August 14, 2017
by Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

“I have set before you blessing and curse,” we read in the first line of this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh. (Why couldn't God just have created blessing and stopped there?) The next two verses instruct us that it is human behavior that will determine whether we experience blessing or curse. As violence and bigotry seem to be consuming our society, it is time to learn this ancient lesson. 

We are watching as the alt-right, racist hate-filled voices gain strength in America—a curse we cannot abide. Our civil society kept these voices on the fringe for the last several decades. To be sure, they existed. Now, in a divided and furious country, these voices are screaming out, unabashed, in public view.  

Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist who penned The Art of War, wrote the famous line: “So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles.” He wrote his book on the strategy of warfare in the 6th century BCE, but it seems relevant even today. Know the hatred that is out there; look the enemy in the eye. It is terrifying to be confronted with the hatred that we have largely ignored as it simmered beneath our society’s surface. 

The voices of hate have always been present in this country—despite the deeply-held values of diversity and opportunity, on which America was founded. Our current president isn’t to blame for the existence of hatred but he certainly is to blame for allowing it to become increasingly acceptable in our country. By hiring people with ties to bigotry, Trump has tainted our government. By taking forty-eight hours after the violence in Charlottesville to clearly condemn the hate-speech, hate-based groups and hate mongering that were behind the rally, our president has told the American people that he doesn't take this powerful threat to our core American identity seriously.

Yesterday, David Harris, the president of AJC, wrote a letter to President Trump: 

What we witnessed in Charlottesville on Friday and Saturday was nothing short of horrifying. It was sickening enough to see people drawn together by the siren songs of white supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan, and neo-Nazism. But however repugnant their views may be, so long as they conducted themselves peacefully, their freedom of speech is protected in our blessed land. But it was abundantly clear that at least some of these racists, anti-Semites, and homophobes came to Charlottesville looking for trouble…

Mr. President, precisely at such moments of national tragedy and, yes, definition, your voice becomes essential. Others cannot substitute for you. You are our leader, you set the tone…We hope you will make clear that our nation does not countenance the warped views of bigots… Their approach tears at the pluralistic fabric of our great country.”

Humans have been plagued with hatred practically from the time of our creation.  The story of Cain and Abel is only a few verses into human existence.  After Cain kills Abel, he famously asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Yes, Cain you are. Emphatically.  You are responsible for your brother and your own behavior.  And we inherit your responsibility. 

Natati lifanecha ha bracha v’ha klala—“I have set before you blessing and curse.” Which one will we choose?

Sat, February 17 2018 2 Adar 5778