Peter J. Rubinstein | December 1, 2003
No explanation is given why Cain killed his brother Abel. We are told that the brothers were born on the same day, Cain first by a few minutes. They grew, flourished; Cain became the farmer, Abel the shepherd. One day the brothers brought offerings to God. It was Cain’s idea at first. Cain brought produce from his fields. Abel then brought firstlings from his flock. Although each brought the best of his labors we are told without an explanation that “God paid heed to the younger brother Abel’s sacrifice but paid no attention to Cain’s offering.”
Dejected, jealous, furious that God had rejected his sacrifice, perceiving blatant divine favoritism toward his younger brother, Cain met Abel in the field, pursued him from hill to hill. When, finally exhausted, the brothers faced each other, Vayakam Kayin el Hevel acheev v’yahargayhu. “Cain rose up and killed his brother Abel.”
Brother murders brother. Elie Wiesel vindicated Cain’s action with these words. “It was only normal for (Cain) to unburden himself, to justify retroactively the injustice perpetrated on him, by giving in to the violence rumbling inside him, by striking out and killing.”
From a massive demonstration of vengeance humanity was introduced to murder, retaliation, and violence. From a perceived slight, no fault of Abel’s, blood flowed and it has been so ever since.
The Torah is filled with stories of revenge, tales of punishment, accounts of violence. Joseph’s brothers wanted to kill their arrogant sibling in a rage of jealousy. The same brothers deceived and murdered an entire clan to avenge the rape of their sister Dinah. God commanded the Israelites to blot out the Amalekites and their name because they attacked the stragglers among the Israelites in the desert.
Our Tanach chronicles the shadows of the human spirit and holds a mirror up to us.
No, we are not marauders or killers. But in the rage of anger, suffering the sting of insult or humiliation, wounded by perceived offense or attack, violence rumbles within us. We have the instinct to hurt those who hurt us. We want to punish.
What is it about us, irrational but real, that desires to strike back when we feel injured. What is it about us that inclines us to violence?
Perhaps it is from childhood when we are taught implicitly, and often explicitly, that the way to change a person’s behavior is through punishment. Some perspectives on child-raising invoke the teaching from Proverbs that “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him early.” (Proverbs 13:24)
This theory assumes that physical punishment, the sting of the rod or the back of the hand, or patsch in tuchus (as though Yiddish makes it gentler), a spank on the rear end, is an effective way to teach a child proper behavior. And when we do not spank, we use other methods. We demean our child with words. A parent’s scolding that humiliates stings as sharply as a slap on the face. We can maim with words.
Even as we know that the impulse to teach a child by making them pay is neither best for us nor for them, the frustration of parenthood can, and admittedly sometimes, does, turn us into raging lunatics, for which we almost always feel guilty. The impulse to punish and to hurt whether by spanking or by insult is contrary to every spark of decency that we intend to teach children and to model.
And we suspect, that while the reflex to punish may be a matter of inherited learned behavior or genetic instinct, pain is hardly effective in teaching a lesson to a child. Suffering is hardly effective in changing a society. Violence is hardly effective in making this world kinder.
Yet despite every indication to the contrary, the illusion that brutality changes minds abounds. The spiral of violence in this world is explosive.
Violence breeds violence. Violence destroys.
Obviously, we see violence at its worst in the Middle East. There, the theory of terrorism conveys that if you murder, maim, and mutilate innocent civilians enough, you will change minds and policy. This ideology assumes that when the opposition is beaten into submission, a nation and a people will be brought to their knees.
For three years now and even before, the people of the state of Israel have been besieged by a vile campaign of terror waged against them: on their school buses, in their cafes, at their Shabbat tables last week, and yesterday in a beachfront restaurant in Haifa. We mourn the 19 Israelis killed including a family of five, the youngest only 14 months. We pray for complete healing for the 50 brutally wounded. They are in our prayers at this moment.
The presumption of Palestinian terror groups is that Israel and Israelis will give up, see the light, succumb in the face of the most noxious onslaught.
But we know that murder will not alter policy. Terror will not change minds. Pain will not make us kinder. Israel is not going away and no measure of violence will bring us to our knees. If terrorists want to stiffen the necks of an already stiff-necked people just try to push us around and we will be stronger. We especially affirm on this, the 30th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War when in 1973 Israel was attacked while we were at prayer, we especially affirm that neither Israel nor Jews in this world will go away.
Israel’s policy has been to protect itself from attacks and to pursue those who conspire to harm its citizens. Jewish law grants the right to take the lives of those who aim to kill you.
When violence towards innocent civilians becomes part of the policy of any faction or nation in the Middle East or anywhere, it is a recipe for disaster. Lo tee-kom: “Do not take vengeance” (Lev 19:18) the Torah mandates in the reading today. Let us hearken!
There is no benefit in killing innocent people. Such murder will be visited tenfold upon those who do others harm.
Violence breeds violence. Violence destroys.
We may not agree as to whether our attack in Iraq was necessary or justified, but any policy of terror and destruction by Iraqis or non-Iraqis, any campaign of violence against the civilians of Iraq or against aid workers or against those who are rebuilding Iraqi society, any policy of revenge and terror that relies on the falsehood that pain will bring change is an illusion. Violence produces more violence.
Violence also emerges as a tool of religion. Fundamental religionists seek the spread of their faith, their beliefs, their God by hurting, murdering those who believe differently. “There is a dark side to religious devotion,” Jon Krakauer writes. “(It) is too often ignored or denied, (but) as a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane ... there may be no more potent force than religion.”
We must guard against zealotry. We may not be able to love our neighbors as we love ourselves but at least let us not kill them. We cannot beat opposing ideas into submission. Around this world religious faith motivates cruel behavior in the name of a God. Faith in the guise of pain and violence is absurd. George Santayana correctly taught, “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.”
Violence does not bring change. Violence destroys.
Violence, whether intended or by consequence, whether by act or attitude, whether by policy or contempt is not confined to theaters of armed conflict.
Violence takes different forms. There is violence when human beings are dishonored. There is violence when human suffering proliferates. There is violence when lives are destroyed.
Our national leaders affirmed life in their announced campaign to battle AIDS here and in Africa. Then, along the way, our policy changed. Policy regulations cut off funding of local agencies in Africa that provide abortion services or support abortion rights.
The result: men and women in Africa’s most AIDS-devastated areas are without access to the assistance that could prevent both unwanted pregnancies and AIDS. The population we vowed to help is abandoned. AIDS spreads. People die. Lo ta-amod al dam ray-echa: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” (Lev. 19:16) Religious zeal may hijack the best intentions.
And also here at home, violence breeds violence. When, intentionally or not, we abuse the weakest among us, are callous to the pain of the poor, ignore the despair of the unemployed, deny the needs of children without health care or adequate education, turn shoulders against the mentally or emotionally incapacitated, or disregard the elderly, we destroy life. Lo ta-a-shok et re-acha: “Do not take advantage of your neighbor.” (Lev. 19:13)
When the lives of any of our citizens are demeaned or diminished, when dignity is undermined and infants go hungry, when people are forced to choose between medication or food, shelter or health, an insidious and pernicious violence corrodes our civil anchors.
Violence corrodes us. Violence rumbles within us.
Internationally, nationally, religiously, and personally we participate in violence. We began with examples of our relations to children but violence also permeates our most intimate relations as adults.
The spread of gossip meant for no other reason than to destroy reputation and to do harm is murderous. Rumor mongering is venomous. Lo tay-laych ra-cheel b’amecha: “Do not go as a talebearer.” (Lev 19:16) You steal a person’s soul when you destroy a person’s integrity and reputation ... especially behind his or her back.
Couples going through marital dissolution behave violently when they are so embroiled in a cycle of irrational vengeance toward each other that violence not only brutalizes a no-longer loved spouse but also the children of their union. These parents destroy life.
When, in an aggravated effort to be funny, any of us is snide and demeaning, treating another person with humorous contempt, diminishing his or her worth and efforts with a smile on our lips, we foster an insidious and despicable form of violence. When, in the name of constructive criticism, we are insensitive to the self-respect and esteem of a child or a colleague, a spouse or a friend; when we belittle with the pretext of teaching, we are betraying trust. We cause pain. We are violent.
When we use a God-given intellect to humble an associate, to demonstrate our intellectual dominance in the service of our own ego, when we showcase our brilliance by abusing the person incapable of defending against our intellectual onslaught, we are being a bully. We are mean. Intelligence and learning do not equate with virtue.
Schoolyard bullies push smaller children around in schoolyards. Intellectual bullies push associates around in conference rooms. Bullies use force. They do not change minds. Use of physical or mental capacity to humiliate is violence. Lo t’kalayl chey-raysh: “Do not take advantage of the vulnerable.” (Lev. 19:14)
Let us be on guard against our own violent impulses.
We don’t need to stab the heart to take a life. Insult and shame do just as well.
Nobody ever taught Cain to behave better than he did. There was no mentor to teach him. Unjustly rejected, his grief a burden, his sorrow profound, violence rumbling within, Cain raged forth. Understanding no alternative he struck his brother, spilled Abel’s blood and forever wandered this earth bearing the mark of his guilt.
Cain’s violence did not improve his life. Cain could not undo his malice. He could not bring Abel back.
And then to God’s inquiry about his brother Cain answers, “lo yadati. Hashomer achee anochi?” We understand Cain’s equivocation when God challenged him: “I don’t know about my brother. Am I supposed to be my brother’s keeper?” In the spirit of the Midrash, Wiesel suggests a variant reading. Without punctuation in the Torah text to direct us, we choose this conversation.
“Where is your brother, Abel?” God asks.
With humility and remorse Cain tearfully admits, “I didn’t know I was supposed to be my brother’s keeper.”
We, the citizens of this United States, we the Jewish people, say no to violence. Let us withhold our hand and still our tongue. We are each other’s keepers. We are dedicated to life. Moses besought “u-vacharta ba-chayim”: “Choose life!” Let us sustain each other with deeds and with words. Let us help each other grow, offering a shoulder to lean on and legs to stand on. Let us fully embrace God’s holiness implanted within us. Let us commit not only to be keepers of each other, but to be guardians of all humanity so that in time Isaiah’s promise shall be fulfilled, that “our light shall break forth like the dawn and healing shall quickly blossom.”
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