What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!
Of all the powerful stories contained in this week’s parsha, Bereishit, the dramatic narrative of Cain and Abel, the original Biblical fratricide, stands out as a compelling validation of the power of restorative justice.
After Cain murders his brother Abel for unknown reasons, God confronts him. Cain flippantly responds, denying his responsibility for the crime and for his brother’s fate writ large. God then curses Cain so that farming is difficult, and he must wander the earth.
God could have killed Cain or allowed him to be killed. Instead, his punishment is to be banished from God’s presence. He will become a nomad, living at the mercy of others, a terrifying thought for Cain. However, in an interesting twist, God places a mark on Cain, so that he remains unharmed and has the opportunity to repent and learn from his actions,
Reading this story right after the High Holy Days serves as a reminder that teshuva – the work of righting the wrongs in our hearts and in our lives – does not end with the final shofar blast on Yom Kippur. It is an ongoing process and we must be ready to participate. At times, we are like God, asking of ourselves, “What happened?” “How did this happen?” and “What did you do?” There are also times when we resemble Cain, responding with denials, deception, and failure to take responsibility.
It is at those times when we must reject Cain’s willful negation of his obligation to his brother. Yes, we are responsible for our own actions, and for each other. We must care for and be attuned to the suffering and needs of our fellow humans. We must pursue justice and equality for all people. The process of teshuva is not only about apologizing, but making the necessary changes so that history, Biblical and otherwise, does not repeat itself.