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Am I My Brother’s Guardian?

A Jewish Response to the Murderous Rampage in Isla Vista


The first murder in the Torah (also known as the first five books of the Bible and Old Testament) occurs in the first generation of brothers. Two brothers are born to their parents, Adam and Eve. Cain is born first and Abel second. They grew up, and Cain, who became a farmer, brings to God an offering of gratitude consisting of fruit from the earth; Abel, who became a shepherd, brings an offering of gratitude from one of the animals from his flock. God turned to Abel and his gift, but to Cain and his gift, God did not turn. Cain was angry, and his face fell from shame and hurt from not being acknowledged.

God said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why is your face fallen? Surely, if you improve yourself you will be forgiven? If you do not improve yourself, however, then sin is crouching at the opening! [Your animal nature] is longing [to entice you], but you can rule over it [if you desire to rule over it].” … And it was while they were in the field; Cain rose against his brother and killed him.

God said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s guardian?” God said, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the earth!”

This archetypal parable speaks to us. No, that’s not right. It screams at us. It screams at us to pay attention to our own emotions, particularly those of jealousy, disappointment, shame, and lack of feeling acknowledged which can show up as our anger and our rage.

Look again at God’s words to Cain: “If you do not improve yourself, however, then sin is crouching at the opening!” Your animal nature, your internal adversary, your doubting, insecure, skeptical self is always lying in wait at the opening of your house, at the opening of your mind, at the opening of your heart. And all it needs is the smallest invitation. The murder of those six young people and the one who caused very serious injuries to the others was far beyond “normal,” but he was a human being somewhere on the emotional spectrum of humanity. Though few are murderers, we are all humans living lives that are challenging. Both Cain and the young man in Isla Vista allowed emotions to rule over conscience in a time of challenge.

Nothing we can say or do will bring those people back to life or heal the shattered hearts of their families. But perhaps we can make the lives they lived a blessing for us and those with whom we live and work and teach. Perhaps we can be given a blessing if we learn to improve ourselves by learning how to cope with our feelings of jealousy, disappointment, shame, and anger, and teach these skills to our children, grandchildren, and students. Jewish tradition offers several tools for dealing with these feelings that I find personally helpful. Here are three.

The first is a meditation that you can say as soon as you lay your head on the pillow at night. “Master of the universe, I hereby forgive everyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me — whether against my body, my property, my honor, or against anything of mine. I hereby forgive this person (or these people) whether he or she did it accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely. I hereby forgive this person whether it was done through speech, deed, thought, or notion. I hereby forgive this person (or these people) whether it was done in this life or in a past life. I hereby forgive every person. May no one be punished because of me. May it be Your will, Infinite Source of Blessings, that I sin no more. May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be acceptable to You, Source of All Life.”

The second one is a meditation we say in the morning. “May it be Your will, Infinite Source of Blessings, God of my ancestors, that there not arise jealousies of other others against me nor my jealousy against others. May it be Your will that I not become angry today and that I not anger You. Save me from the inclination to follow my instincts. Instead, instill in my heart and mind consciousness and humility. Instill in me a fear of allowing my animal nature to rise above my conscience. Our Sovereign, our God, manifest Your unity in Your world. Help all humanity know that You God exist in every human, every animal, every plant, and every rock, everywhere.”

I find that both the evening meditation and the morning meditation help train my mind. That is to say, it establishes a trail in the wilderness on which I walk every day. Day after day, the trail becomes more familiar. It’s like training a muscle to lift a weight or do an exercise. We have to train our minds like a muscle; and we have to practice every day.

The third technique is an accounting of the emotional mind, which today, we might call a mindfulness practice. It is taught by my teacher Rabbi Mordecai Finley, who was influenced by the writings of the spiritual genius, and master Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzato (1707-1746), who was born and lived in Padua, Italy, later moved to Amsterdam, Holland, and finally lived and died in Acco, Israel. What I am about to share is also influenced by my teacher from long ago, Dr. Raghavan Iyer. I pray that I can convey their teachings in an accurate manner and ask for forgiveness for any errors that I may make.

The practice is to sit quietly for about 10 to 15 minutes every day, with back straight and eyes closed, and to do an internal emotional inventory of how you are feeling about the people in your life. Start with the people that you care most deeply about, and then move outward to others in your life, perhaps in a series of concentric circles in your mind. Once you feel those feelings for those people, name the feelings. Acknowledge the feelings. And now the difficult part. Ask yourself, are your feelings justified? (Your first answer naturally might be yes! But ask again.) Are they moral and ethical? Are they reflective of the truth, observed from a critical distance? Are they reflective of justice and beauty? Or are your feelings generated by your internal trickster or adversary? Are they really the truth of what you are feeling, or is there a deeper feeling lying underneath that is being covered up by the first set of emotions?

Once you get to this awareness, now ask yourself, what can I do to take responsibility for my feelings? What can I do to feel better, feel more connected, more grounded, more compassionate toward the people in my life, particularly those with whom I am struggling now? Then listen to the possibilities. And pick one thing that you can do to shift your behavior toward something that would help the relationship be more positive, shifting your thoughts and your words to a place of kindness. This does not mean that you should be weak, passive, or dangerously vulnerable. You have to protect yourself and your loved ones. But a slight shift internally can shift relationships in big ways.

Let us have the strength to do these meditations and practices, or ones similar to them, so that each one of us helps to create a more peaceful world. Let us have the strength and courage and discipline to answer God, saying, “Yes, I am my brother’s guardian. Yes, as a matter of fact, I am my brother’s keeper.”

Rabbi Elihu Gevirtz is the Rabbi of Zimrat Yah in Santa Barbara, California.

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