Silence or speech? Silence or speech? In these days following the brutal, calculated, systematic, and heinous murder of over 1200 Israelis by Hamas, I have been rocked between this Ecclesiastical vacillation. Is this indeed a time for silence or a time for speech? How can I possibly stay silent, but what speech will ever be adequate?
This week we start the Torah again. Usually, a joyful exercise that returns us to the origins of the universe and the Garden of Eden; but this time, all I could see was the origins of human cruelty and the foundational killing field. We disobey, we lie, we are jealous, and in the story of Cain and Abel, we murder. In contrast, the very first questions of the Torah asked in Parashat Bereishit, offer the counter narrative of accountability and care. After Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge and hide themselves, God asks Adam — “Ayeka” — where are you? And later, after Cain murders Abel, God asks, “Ei hevel akheikha? Where is Abel your brother?”
If we take the questions literally, they seem silly. Surely God knew exactly where Adam was after he ate the fruit. And surely, the Torah does not imagine that God missed Abel’s murder, asking a direct question of his whereabouts.
So why the obvious questions? Because neither question is one of physical location but of spiritual awareness. God is imagined to be saying to Adam, “You’ve done the one thing I instructed you not to do, and now you are hiding – Where is your soul? What are you thinking?” And to Cain, God is imagined to challenge him not only to tell the truth, but to accept responsibility, saying, “Where is your brother?” Where is the one other important person that you need to keep track of?”
Jewish tradition offers us the clear understanding that how we respond to suffering in the world is an indicator of character, and in fact we are the keepers of our siblings. Since the unfolding of the horrors in Israel it is not lost on me that the very first murder occurs in this week’s text, a life taken to solve some bigger problem, but such rage solved nothing then, and for certain will solve nothing now.
The Torah imagines that God says to Cain: Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! (Genesis 4:8), yet the word for blood is d’mei – in the plural. It’s a grammatical curiosity, but meaningful when we understand the many worlds that each life, and each person represents. Hamas’ stunning callousness and cruel disregard for humanity and disrespect for life reflects a depravity that has no explanation or justification. Hamas’ actions don’t respect Palestinian lives either, as they know very well that their terrorism will be met with retaliation against Palestinian civilians, and they don’t care. Such evil is born in humanity, and I wonder if only a genuine understanding of Godliness could prevent it.
According to the midrash, we don’t know what Cain said to Abel before the text says that he set upon Abel and killed him, though it offers different arguments between them. As readers it is surprising – perhaps even shocking – that whatever was said or done between them led to the first murder, not the first reconciliation. This moment, this thing called murder, had never happened before in the whole of human existence, according to the Torah. Cain had no experience or context for his lashing out at his brother and had no understanding of what he had done until it was too late.
We are not so naïve today. Hamas knew exactly what it was doing, and rejoiced in their “success.” As we now hear the blood of 1200 Israelis crying out from the ground, we must also hear the still small voice of God echoing this week’s portion: Ayekah? Where are you? Ei akheikha? Where are your siblings?
How will we respond, with silence or with speech?