Current events, ancient query: Am I my brother’s keeper?

Amy Hirshberg Lederman
Amy Hirshberg Lederman

I have always loved books. As a child, I treasured my hardcover editions of “Heidi,” “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” and “Black Beauty” and loved the nights when my mom and I would snuggle on the couch as she read me chapter after chapter of “Little Women.” And in 1965, at the age of 11, I saved up and bought my very first Bible. Not the “Jewish” kind, that my friends made fun of because it opened up backwards, but the Official King James Version published by Oxford University Press. I read late at night with a flashlight under the bedcovers, underlining in orange crayon the passages that stirred me. By my 12th  birthday, I knew as much about Matthew, Luke and John as I did about Abraham and Moses, and while my parents thought it a bit odd that I preferred Bible over Barbie, they rewarded my curiosity by buying me more books.

I still have that King James Version on my shelf, along with five translations of the “Jewish Bible,” which we call the Torah. As Jews we are commanded to study the Torah and teach it to our children. It is our spiritual inheritance and legacy — the roadmap for Jewish thought and action and a guidebook for what God expects of us.

In college, if someone asked me what book had most affected my life, I would have answered Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” or Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha.”  But over the years, I have come to cherish the wisdom and yes, the relevancy, of the oldest book on my shelf, the Torah.

For as counterintuitive as it may seem in our digitally dominated, social media driven world, this ancient text is highly relevant today because it portrays the evolution of  the  purpose for which we were created and the responsibilities we have as human beings. These responsibilities are both imminent and transcendent; they range from those we have to ourselves and one another, to the obligations we have to our earth, our community, the world at large and God.

I, like many others, am deeply troubled by the direction in which our country is heading, especially regarding the unjust treatment of immigrants and undocumented non-citizens. Let’s face it: one of the central tenets of Jewish thought is based on the idea that we were strangers in a strange land and that if not for our ability to emigrate, we would have been decimated numerous times throughout history.

This principle, to welcome the stranger, is repeated 35 times in the Torah, more than any other commandment. And if that’s not enough, we are reminded year after year when we read from the Haggadah at our Seder that: “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20) and “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)”

Do we need anything stronger than this directive to guide us in our own commitment to protect and preserve the rights of immigration in our own country? Does this timeless document, our Torah, not give us a clear message today that is not only relevant but mandatory if we are to continue to live meaningful lives as Jews, Americans and human beings?

I am struck by the evolution of the sense of responsibility that we have as Jews to one another as it plays out in a dialogue found in the first chapter of Genesis (4:9). After Cain kills his brother Abel out of pure jealousy because God favored Abel’s gift over Cain’s, God asks Cain the following: “Where is Abel, your brother?”  to which Cain answers, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Torah actually answers this question in the next to the last chapter of Genesis.  Joseph, who is second-in-command to Pharaoh, still has not revealed his identity to his brothers who have come to Egypt to buy provisions due to the famine in Canaan.  Joseph intentionally frames his youngest brother, Benjamin, for stealing the divining goblet, and consequently declares that as punishment, Benjamin will have to stay in Egypt while the brothers return to their father Jacob. Judah, the elder brother for whom we as Jews are named, beseeches Joseph to enslave him rather than Benjamin, as he knows that it will literally kill his father if they return without his beloved youngest son.

So we come full circle in Genesis when, without being asked, Judah answers the question first asked by God of Cain. He comes forward willing and with his actions asserts that YES, he is his brother’s keeper.

The issue looms large today: Am I my brother’s keeper?  Isn’t that the question to keep at the forefront of our minds? And if we go deep to the place in our hearts where truth resides, I believe we will know the answer.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at