So we have, once again, begun the annual cycle of reading the Torah with the familiar tales of creation and the first generations of humanity. Tomorrow morning, I will read the story of Cain and Abel, a passage that we could probably paraphrase almost from memory. After mom and dad pointed fingers at each other when God asked why they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, one would think that the sons would learn the lesson to tell the truth. We find out in this passage that the children are doomed, at times, to repeat the mistakes of the past. In the story in Genesis Chapter 4, Cain and Abel were born – Cain grew up to be a farmer, and Abel a shepherd. One day, they brought to God an offering, with Abel bringing the best of his flock and Cain bringing some regular grain. God accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, sending Cain into a rage. God lectured Cain for a moment about sin – knowing that Cain’s anger could lead him to do something he might regret. And so it did – Cain killed his brother Abel following an undetailed encounter and conversation in the field. God then inquired of Cain the whereabouts of his brother. He replied with the famous and quotable words, “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” Like his parents, Cain thought he could conceal the truth from the One who is the source of truth. Cain realized his guilt, and God put a mark on him so no one would take revenge.
Cain’s name, KAYIN, is related to the word to make or acquire. Abel’s name – HEVEL – is the same word that graces several passages in the book of Ecclesisates – breath, a puff of air, or vanity. It is as if Abel or HEVEL was born to be a wisp of a person, destined not to survive. The Torah makes clear that, for Cain, his brother was like an insignificant puff of air, inconsequential enough that Cain thought it was all right to take his brother’s life.
As I thought about Abel’s position in this story of being almost non-existent, it brought to mind people who may be marginalized and forgotten in some way in our society. I was listening this morning to the Today Show team talk about the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators and their message. Then I went online and found an article by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post on the “99 Percent” project. The article noted how people who might normally fall through the cracks are getting much needed attention. Klein wrote, “It’s not the arrests that convinced me that ‘Occupy Wall Street’ was worth covering seriously. It was a the blog called, ‘We Are The 99 Percent,’ and all it’s doing is posting grainy pictures of people holding handwritten signs telling their stories, one after the other.” For example, “I am 20K in debt and am paying out of pocket for my current tuition while I start paying back loans with two part time jobs.” These are not rants against the system. They’re not anarchist manifestos. They’re not calls for a revolution. They’re small stories of people who played by the rules, did what they were told, and now have nothing to show for it. Or, worse, they have tens of thousands in debt to show for it….It’s not that 99 percent of Americans are really struggling. It’s that 99 percent of Americans sense that the fundamental bargain of our economy -- work hard, play by the rules, get ahead -- has been broken, and they want to see it restored.” I would urge you to read some of these testimonies from real people seeking to turn their lives around.
We saw another example this week of someone who could have become like “a mere breath” were it not for the steadfast commitment of his parents and many others to bring him home. Many people have credited this movement as the catalyst that brought about the deal that led to Gilad Shalit’s release. So many times, someone in distress can be “out of sight, out of mind,” but not in this case. And on the other side, I saw one parent of a freed Palestinian prisoner echo Gilad Shalit’s sentiment that “maybe this deal can lead to making more steps toward peace.”
And finally, there was a man who had been hiding, likely attempting himself to say, “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” about the citizens of his country and other nations who were directly and indirectly victimized by his brutal regime. The capture and killing of Muamaar Ghadafi – especially the videos shown on television and on the internet – were grisly and graphic. Ghadafi was likely counting on the possibility that people would forget his victims, the people he pushed aside and tried to render insignificant, as if the world and humanity did not require their existence. But people remembered – not only in his nation, but all over the world. It is sad that our world has seen too many rulers like him.
The rabbis taught in Pirkei Avot, “Despise no one and call nothing useless, for there is no one who doesn’t have his or her time and no thing that does not have its special place in the world.” Everyone one of us – and the people next to us – our brothers and sisters in the family of humanity – we are all significant. Our inner voices – and sometimes our outside voices – call for recognition and affirmation. As we want that for ourselves, may we grant that to others who need our support and assistance to make their lives whole. Right around us, in our city, there are people who are part of the 99 percent. There are congregants who are facing challenges and need our reassurance. There are members who are ill and need our prayers and thoughts that will affirm and bolster their strength and confidence. May we reach out with love and care to those who are silent and to those who speak, and may we call out for those who need to be heard. And let us say amen.