Once, when my siblings and I were very young, my parents made the mistake of putting me and my brother in charge of our sister while they went out for an appointment. Though we are very close today, when my brother and I were much younger, our competing claims to personal territory and parental attention often clashed, producing very unpleasant consequences for both of us and our parents. Notwithstanding these animosities, he and I at times teamed up in our attempts to terrorize our little sister. Who dreamed up that specific day’s covert operation I do not remember, but I do recall it being a brilliant exercise in mean stupidity. We took a knife, placed it on the floor of our kitchen, took out a bottle of ketchup and spilled some of it near the knife. I lay on the floor on my stomach and pretended to be dead, while my brother began yelling to my sister, “Come here quickly, I’ve killed Daniel!” My sister, no more than six years old at the time, raced into the kitchen. She stopped, got down on the floor beside me, took a small sniff of the red stuff and barked, “That’s not blood, it’s ketchup. You’re in big trouble!”
Over the years, our many and varied echoes of the biblical Cain and Abel story gave way to maturity and perspective, along with the anxieties and joys of raising our respective children. We slowly learned, as do many siblings who stick it out with each other long enough, that the shared experience of parenting granted us far more commonality than difference, as we tried to teach our own kids to care for each other. I would like to believe that we also acquired some humility by recognizing that our own less than perfect parents did the best they could, even if it wasn’t always best for us. Whatever childhood sibling scars we may have inflicted upon each other, our adult narrative was about living in fraternity, not acting out scenes of fratricide.
Many years later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I went to our local polling place for a primary, and finding it strangely shuttered, I sauntered back to my office, only to find a member of the congregation sobbing in the parking lot about two planes bringing down the Twin Towers. In those precious moments before all the phone lines across the continent jammed with collective grief, I called my brother and I was surprised to find him at home.
“Hey, what are you doing at home on a work-day? And have you heard anything about these planes crashing into the Towers?”
“It’s being identified as an act of terrorism. I was supposed to be in the towers this morning for work, and I made a last-minute decision to work at home.”
Two brothers conjoined in silent agony at the murderous, hateful echoes of Cain and Abel in the world; two brothers conjoined in unspoken relief at the randomness of a change of plans.
On the morning of September 11, 2019, only two weeks ago, I texted my brother. “Good morning. Pardon what might feel creepy, but with 9/11, I just wanted to let you know how glad I and all of us are that you’re alive and here.” He texted me back, “It’s not creepy…I’m working at home today like I have every 9/11 for the last eighteen years. I know how lucky I am and it means the world to me to hear from my family.” Wishing each other our love, we ended the conversation. At that moment, we didn’t need to say more. The sibling journey we had traveled since that day in our parents’ house was so self-evident, no more words were needed. At that moment, we couldn’t say more. Like Abel’s blood which the Bible tells us cried from the ground, the echoing cries of the innocent people who died in the towers were so all-present, no more words were appropriate.
My brother and I have only grown in our respect and love for each other over time, as did so many of the 9/11 victims with their own still-bereaved families. However, the plentiful journeys of sibling hatred from Cain and Abel to 9/11 remind us, as the philosopher Leon Kass has written, that there are no natural impulses or passions that seek to unite brother with brother. Whether in our nuclear or our global families, siblings have to constantly be socialized to act out of love. We could argue that fraternal love is really an end goal, almost a pious ideal. The more realistic minimal requirement is fraternal responsibility. Perhaps the best way to keep sacred the memories of our American brothers and sisters who died on 9/11 is to always respond in word and deed to Cain’s cynical rhetorical question left unanswered by God:
Am I my brother’s keeper?
Yes, you are.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer in Albany, NY.
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