O Say, Cain You See a Way to Enable Brotherly Love?

B'reishit, Genesis 1:1−6:8

D'Var Torah By: Greg Wolfe


Cain now thought about his brother Abel. . . . Then when they were in the field, Cain turned on his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Eternal One said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel? And he replied, "How should I know; am I my brother's keeper?" And [God] said, "What have you done? Your brother's blood is shrieking to me from the ground! Now you are cursed by this very soil, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hands." (Genesis 4:8-11, gen. ed., W. Gunther Plaut, trans., Chaim Stern, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition [URJ Press, 2005], pp.27-28)

The Torah uses the word "brother" to describe Abel's relationship to Cain six times in just four verses (Genesis 4:8-11). It appears like a haunting refrain; a biblical precursor to scary moment, like the scratchy music that foreshadows the murderous shower scene in the movie Psycho. His brother Abel-we are reminded again and again, as if the words themselves could bridge the chasm that gapes between them. The irony is not lost on us. We are left with no doubt that something sacred and pure, a brotherly bond, is about to be shattered. "Cain spoke to his brother Abel. . . " (Genesis 4:8). The sentence is left hanging, ominously incomplete. There is a pause in mid-sentence-and then a terrifying act of raw rage ends with the death of a brother at the hands of his brother.

Cain and Abel are only the first siblings in a long lineage of troubled family connections in the Torah. Though no others end in actual bloodshed, the odds for biblical brotherly love appear to be quite a long shot. We can move right down the family tree and discover one failure after another: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and all of his brothers! Rachel and Leah don't fare much better, either. Not until we meet Ephraim and Manasseh (Joseph's sons), practically at the end of Genesis, do we encounter brothers who, as far as we can tell, get along with one another.

We know precious little about these boys and their relationship, but the Torah tells us that Jacob gave them this blessing, "By you shall [the people of] Israel give [their] blessing, saying, 'May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh'" (Genesis 48:20). What was so special about these boys that Jewish parents, even today, ask God to make their sons like Ephraim and Manasseh?

Perhaps it is less about the deeds of this famous duo and more about their relationship with one another. They are the first brothers in our biblical account to represent unity and harmony; always joined as a pair, despite the fact that the younger is placed before the older. Isn't the ability to live in harmony the hope of all parents for their sons? What's important is not that they achieve greatness and wealth, stature and success, but that they be there for each other, through good times and bad; love each other always; and care for one another deeply.

All relationships are messy and complicated, never straightforward and simple; like the lives of which they are integral parts. And, yet, it is precisely in the messy dynamics of our relationships with family, friends, and others that we can discover significant moral insights for ourselves. Each of us is Cain, and each of us is Abel, too. Our lives are minefields booby-trapped by feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, jealousy, competition, and even deep desires for revenge just waiting to explode. The Torah peels away the veneer of civility we wear like a fig leaf to reveal to us these seething emotions of being human that exist in everyone just below the surface. Underneath it all, we are just like Cain, who wasn't entirely able when it comes to relationships-we seek acceptance, appreciation, and love. Yes, at our core, we yearn to be complete and at peace like Ephraim and Manasseh, but we must first untangle ourselves from the knotty ties that bind us to Cain and Abel.

We do have choices, and this, ultimately, is the lesson we can learn from Cain and Abel. Peter Pitzele writes in his book on the myths of Genesis, Our Fathers' Wells: "In the reality of linear time no one ever gets a chance to go back and do it again. Once the apple has been eaten, Eve cannot unswallow it; . . . once they [Adam and Eve] know they are naked, neither of them can return to the innocence before their 'eyes were opened.' Within this construct of linear time the patriarchal imagination dwells unflinchingly on choice as its central existential concern: What do we do? How do we act when time is so unforgiving?" (Peter Pitzele, Our Fathers' Wells [San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995], p. 52). Will we be sucked in by the swirling forces of violence, hatred, and jealousy that animate the relationship of Cain and Abel, and, in fact, still drive so much of the world's conflict, or will we be inspired to live our lives as an affirmative response to Cain's challenging question to God, which hangs in the air unanswered: Am I my brother's keeper? Though God does not provide an answer, the rest of the Torah seems to be in reply. Only we have the power to make that choice; to choose to be our brother's keeper.

Each and every day we see conflict and violence all around us-in so many corners of the globe, in our own communities, and even perhaps, in families that we know. Let us choose to know that all our lives are interconnected, that our fates are shared. Let us choose to know that we are all brothers and sisters. For we must know that in order to bring healing to the world we must be able to be each other's keepers.


(Bracketed text is from Rabbi Greg Wolfe.)

  • [God asks Cain after the murder. "Where is your brother, Abel?" Cain's response, "Lo Yadati ha-shomer 'achi anochi," can be read in a number of ways.
  • The traditional translation sees Cain's reply as petulant, with a complete absence of responsibility:] "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:9, gen. ed., W. Gunther Plaut, trans., the Jewish Publication Society, The Torah: A Modern Commentary [New York: UAHC, 1981], p. 44)
  • [Because there is no punctuation in the Hebrew of the Torah, Cain's response can be read as one unbroken sentence:] "I didn't know I am my brother's keeper." In this case, Cain's defense was that he was not aware of his responsibility. (Voices From Genesis, Norman J. Cohen [Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights, 1998], p. 160-161)
  • [In a modern midrash, Cohen imagines Cain accusing God of Abel's death:] "You are the keeper and preserver of all things, yet you even let me kill my brother. Why didn't you stop me? You had the power to do that at any moment…. You are the real murderer." (Voices From Genesis, Norman J. Cohen, ibid, p. 42)
  • [Cohen's interpretation is based on] "a creative play on the words Ha-shomer 'achi Anochi ('Am I my brother's keeper?'). The term "Anochi" ("I") can be understood as God's name, since it is used in relation to the Divine quite frequently…. Therefore, with a shift in syntax, Cain's words could read "Anochi Ha-shomer 'achi," "God is my brother's keeper." (Voices From Genesis, Norman J. Cohen, ibid, p. 161)


  1. How does each interpretation of Cain's response to God's question influence your perception of Cain?
  2. How does broadening the interpretation of the word "brother" affect your reading of the text? Who do you consider to be your "brother"?
  3. What are some ways that we can live up to our responsibility to be our "brother's keepers?"


At the time of this writing in 2005, Rabbi Greg Wolfe was the spiritual leader of Congregation Bet Haverim in Davis, California.

Reference Materials

B’reishit, Genesis 1:1-6:8 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 18-55; Revised Edition, pp. 17-50; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 3-34

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