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Am I my brother’s keeper?

Tuesday, 7 April, 2015 - 11:35 am

A self-centered man whose life was less than exemplary dies. He goes up to heaven and finds himself in a gorgeous place, surrounded by all the comfort and beauty he had dreamed of. He is surprised that he merited heavenly reward. Seeing a richly stocked bar, he wants to pour himself a drink. A servant appears at his side. "What is your wish?" he asks. The man tells him his favorite drink, which is promptly served. He is about to reach for a book when again a servant appears and hands him the volume. When he wants to help himself from the table decked out with delicacies, he is again served.

Every time he wishes to do something, a servant appears and does it for him. After a while the man asks the servants to go away. "Let me do something myself," he says. "I'm sorry, sir," a servant answers. "The only thing that is forbidden here is for you to do anything. You just tell us what you would like and we will do it for you." "This is absurd," the man says. "If I can't do anything myself, I'd rather be in Hell." In a low voice, the servant then responds, "where do you think you are?”

We may think that being free of all responsibility is paradise, but it is not. Those who take responsibility and act boldly, rather than blaming others, set the stage for great positive change in the world around them. Contrast the opening of Genesis with the opening of Exodus.

The opening chapters of Genesis are about failures of responsibility. Confronted by G-d with their sin, Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent. Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Even Noah, “righteous, perfect in his generation,” has no effect on his contemporaries. He does not take responsibility for them. By contrast, at the beginning of Exodus, Moses and a group of heroic women take responsibility. When Moses sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite, he intervenes. When he sees two Israelites fighting, he intervenes. In Midian, when he sees shepherds abusing the daughters of Yitro, he intervenes.

Moses, brought up as an Egyptian, could have avoided each of these confrontations, yet he did not. He took responsibility.

Elsewhere in the story of Exodus, two midwives defy Pharaoh's decree of genocide and let the Jewish baby boys live. They risk their lives in defiance of the most powerful empire on earth. And Pharaoh's daughter rescues Moses knowing that in doing so, she is acting against her father's will. All of these people understood that when you see something wrong and no one else is prepared to act, you act. You take responsibility.

That is why they were the catalysts of the redemption. Their stories illustrate three beliefs that lie at the heart of Judaism: We are free. We are responsible. And together, we can change the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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