Josh Feigelson
President & CEO, Institute for Jewish Spirituality

Band of Brothers

Siblings (my pic)

If there’s one constant to my life, it’s siblinghood. From the moment I was born, I have been the youngest of three brothers. Since my second child was born, I have been the father of siblings (pictured above on a family picnic when they were little). When my brothers and I got married, I learned what it meant to have sisters.

But my experience of siblinghood didn’t come about exclusively through biology or marriage or family life. In my rabbinic school class, we often addressed each other–half-jokingly, but also kind of seriously–as “Holy Brother!” (and often still do). In the Boy Scouts we referred to each other as brothers–the way fraternity or sorority members do, the way monks and nuns do, the way soldiers do.

And perhaps all of that has led to a lifelong preoccupation with this notion of siblinghood. What does it mean to be a brother or a sister or a sibling? Some of it has to do with sharing a language: the intimate language of family, the shared people and places and jokes. Some of it has to do with sharing experiences: shared purpose or effort or struggles. And some of it has to do with the sense of responsibility that’s present: My brothers and I know, without even asking, that we and our families can show up and stay at each other’s houses and take food from the fridge. We know, without even asking, that we can list each other as emergency contacts for our children.

The Book of Genesis is, as much as anything, an extended reflection on the meaning of siblinghood: The children of Noah, the children of Terach, Isaac and Ishmael, Rebecca and Laban, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and Dinah and their brothers. Every Torah portion in Genesis is animated, often centrally, by questions about siblinghood–about what it means to be a brother or sister, what it means to share a common ancestor.

Of course, at root the Torah teaches us that we all–all human beings–ultimately share the same common ancestors, Adam and Eve, and beyond that, the same divine source. And thus the primordial story of siblings, that of Cain and Abel, serves as something of a touchstone for this whole exploration. This is the story that essentializes siblinghood into questions of violence and responsibility:

When they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him. God said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ And he said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!’ Gen. 4:8-10)

While Cain’s rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” rings in our ears as a fundamental question about human life, the words that immediately precede them are equally important. Those words are: lo yadati, I do not know. Rashi, quoting Bereshit Rabbah, captures the importance of these two words: “He became a gonev da’at elyonah” — a deceiver of the Most High, or, perhaps more literally, he stole ultimate awareness. In his moment of rage, Cain was overcome; and in the moment following, when confronted with his action, he would not or could not allow his awareness to recognize it, so he lied to himself and to the source of genuine awareness. That led him to ask a question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” which, it would seem, he meant rhetorically–“I bear no responsibility for him!” And we can understand why Cain spins this story in his mind, because when he is ultimately forced to confront the reality of his actions, he is overcome once again: “My sin is too great to bear” (4:13), he cries. In the immortal words of Jack Nicholson: He can’t handle the truth.

The question of siblinghood–who, if anyone, we call a brother or sister or sibling; who, if anyone, we label as a friend, a neutral, an enemy; who, if anyone, we call a tragic but necessary casualty; and what, on the basis of that labeling, our posture is towards them–this is one of the deepest, most difficult, and most important questions we confront. We are living through a time suffused with these questions right now. It’s why so many of us are shedding tears.

It should go without saying that the violence and brutality suffered by so many Israelis at the hands of Hamas last Shabbat were heinous desecrations of the image of God. Failing to acknowledge this is, itself, an act of “stealing ultimate awareness.” Likewise, failing to acknowledge that those who were murdered and kidnapped seem to have been targeted for no other reason than that they were Jews (or people who were with Jews at the time) is an act of seemingly unconscionable disbelief. We Jews, who have endured so much trauma through the centuries, are understandably activated by it.

And: The question of da’at, awareness, is ultimately the question that keeps coming back–day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. Where are we directing our awareness? Toward whom? With what kind of quality or valence–curious, compassionate, angry, something else? What do we notice, and what do we–willingly or unwillingly, wisely or unwisely–overlook?

Just last week, our people read the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). My own wonderful rabbi, Ari Hart, like many others I expect, went to that book for guidance as the violence unfolded in shul in real time. Ari invoked Kohelet’s most famous passage: “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven.” Speaking for myself, the time isn’t right yet–I still feel too raw to create the necessary space to reflect dispassionately on where and how to train my awareness. Hostages are in harm’s way. My own loved ones are on the front lines. My practice helps, but there are still many, many moments when tears cloud my vision and my thinking. And I’m not living under threat of rocket fire.

And, in the same breath, the gifts and demands of da’at, of awareness, this most basic element of our humanity and thus our status as images of the Creator–those gifts are ever-accessible, those demands are ever-present. And so I practice, and I invite you to practice, in the aspiration that, through all the fog and haze, in the midst of all the chaos and tumult in the world and in our mind-hearts, our da’at might be whole and our bodies, our spirits, and our worlds–and the bodies, spirits and worlds of our brothers and sisters and siblings, and of all beings–might be at peace.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD is President & CEO of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. He is the author of "Eternal Questions: Reflections, Conversations, and Jewish Mindfulness Practices for the Weekly Torah Portion" (Ben Yehuda Press, 2022) and the host of the podcast, "Soulful Jewish Living: Mindful Practices for Every Day," a co-production of Unpacked and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
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