Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
Stanmore Security Committee Shabbat
19 November 2005
One of the most callous, pathetic, but psychologically revealing reactions uttered by any perpetrator of a murder when being confronted with his crime, was the response of Cain. When God says to him, ‘Where is Abel, your brother?’ Cain replies, Lo yada’ti, ha-shomeir achiy anokhi, ‘I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’
It was a strange answer. God had not yet levelled any charge against Cain. He had simply asked Cain a question regarding the whereabouts of his brother. The question betrayed no awareness by God that anything had befallen Abel or that He thought that Cain was implicated in his murder. We would have expected Cain to have responded by simply deflecting the question, by stopping short after saying, Lo yada’ti, ‘I do not know!’ or by saying Lo re’iytiyv, ‘I haven’t seen him,’ or eikh eida’, ‘How should I know?’
Cain’s answer, however, was manifestly defensive. It proclaimed his guilt from the rooftops. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Is it my responsibility to protect him from thieves, marauders and murderers? Don’t blame me for what has happened to him!
The poignancy of this episode lies in the fact that it occurs, of all places, in the Sidrah Bereishit, the very first sidrah of the Torah. This first murderer, Cain, was the first generation of the procreative process. His parents were Adam and Eve, fashioned by the very hands of God, as near to physical and moral perfection as one could get. Yet their first offspring becomes a murderer of his own brother.
This anomaly may actually be seen as the logical continuum of a process of moral decline which had already begun with Adam and Eve themselves. Their sin was two-fold: first the rejection of God’s command not to touch the fruit of the Tree of knowledge of good and evil, and secondly the shifting of blame: Adam blaming Eve for giving it to her, and Eve blaming the Serpent for enticing her. So we have here a downward slide into violence and tragedy. It begins with parents who lack responsibility, who display overweening greed, who have almost everything in the world, but cannot curb their desire to enjoy the one thing that is declared forbidden. Is it surprising, therefore, that they beget a child whose lack of responsibility and abdication of moral conscience extends to the taking of the life of his own brother?
‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ The measure of an advanced society is the extent to which it answers that question in the affirmative. And this question is re-addressed to every country and society in each succeeding generation: To the society that allows guns to proliferate and the life of police to be forfeit; to the society that cannot protect or control its ethnic minorities; that removes discipline from its schools and deprives its teachers of the right to effectively punish and chastise; to the society whose criminal justice system allows for an infinitesimal percentage of criminals to be ultimately convicted; to the society that allows the expansion of gambling casinos, and unrestricted, around the clock binge drinking, giving scant thought to the moral and physical consequences, to the dangers caused by drunk drivers on our roads and to the inevitable increase in drug-taking, violence and promiscuity. That question is also addressed to the society that has deprived parents of their rightful responsibility for the moral and physical health and protection of their own young teenagers, by allowing them to be sexually active and seek contraceptive advice from professionals who are not permitted to divulge the situation to their parents. And that question is also addressed to a society that has turned nature on its head by granting to a homosexual liaison the recognition and legal status of marriage.
We sense that we are living once again in the dark ages. Ironically, historians today regard that term, descriptive of the period of alleged intellectual stagnation in Europe from the 5th to the 11th centuries, as a misnomer rooted in our own ignorance of the cultural development that was in fact going on, albeit un-publicised and un-chronicled, during that period. But from a moral perspective, I would certainly dub ours as ‘the dark age,’ an age in which the overarching challenge of being our brothers’ keepers has been truly frustrated and rejected, an age wherein all discipline has evaporated and the principles of decency, respect, integrity and authority have been severely compromised.
We are not safe in our homes, on our streets, in our schools or universities, or in our public buildings. And this brings us to the subject of today’s special Shabbat to honour the sterling efforts of the members of our synagogue’s security committee who work so hard, in all weathers and during both social and anti-social hours to constitute a high profile presence around our shul which, in itself, offers a significant measure of deterrence.
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I spoke earlier about responsibility and being our neighbour’s keeper. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the members of our security committee for their heightened sense of responsibility, selflessness and concern for the safety of our community and of the numerous groups that use this building. The amount of time they devote each week, for training and duty, away from their families, makes theirs a real act of sacrifice, one for which we, the beneficiaries of that, should be immensely grateful.
But in this instance gratitude is not enough. It should translate itself into co-operation, encouragement and practical support. When called upon to assist on a Shabbat or Yom Tov we should do so readily, and always inform the organiser in good time if we cannot fulfil a rota duty. Our younger, 18-plus members should consider seriously offering their services to join the committee and to do the 3-month CST course. This will not only assist our local and the general Jewish community, but will also help them individually in a number of ways. And finally, the security committee would like us to be much more vigilant at all times, not just when attending this building, but also when passing by the building either on foot or by car, and reporting anything at all irregular or suspicious to the office or to a member of the team. We cannot be too careful. We are living through difficult times, for all the citizens of this country, and especially for the Jewish community.
Hashomer achiy anokhiy? – ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Most definitely we are. And most definitely have been the pioneers and leaders of security over the past decades. We recall the efforts of the past and present leaders, such as Michael Green, John Serlin, John Shammah, Keith Gould and Martin Leigh, Nissan Moradoff and Adam Tash, Richard Hyams and Robin Leigh. And the team they lead are largely CST trained. Such is the confidence that the CST has in the Stanmore security team that last week, when the Israeli ambassador visited our community, the CST left the organisation of security solely to our local team. This is a fine tribute to Stanmore’s competence and professionalism.
Those who do security are facilitating the response to one of our most fervent petitions, as expressed poetically in the Tachanun prayer:
Shomeir Yisrael shemor she’eirit Yisrael
V’al yovad Yisrael ha-omrim Shema Yisrael
Guardian of Israel, protect the remnant of Israel,
And let not Israel perish, those who declare Shema Yisrael.
The security team do just that: they protect us as we recite our prayers as a community. May I take this opportunity, on behalf of us all, of thanking them for all they do for us, and, as far as their duties are concerned, we wish them a peaceful and uneventful future, and brakhah v’hatzlachah in all their undertakings.