June 3, 2020
When the Blood of Our Brothers and Sisters Cries Out From the Ground
In the beginning, when God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And it was evening and it was morning, the first day.
I begin with Genesis, because this dark time in the life of our country calls us to go back to the beginning. The beginning of life; the beginning of the human story; and the foundation of our American story, as well.
Life emerges in the Torah as a precious gift of the divine—God breathed life into the first human beings. But in the very same Torah portion, life is taken. Abel’s sacrifice is accepted by God and Cain’s is not; Cain is angry, and he strikes Abel down. The first murder in biblical history is a fratricide, the killing of a brother.
When Abel is dead, God calls out to Cain: “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil—kol d’mai acheecha tzoakim A lie min ha’adamah (Gen. 4:10).”
Why does the human story open with murder? Why follow the creation of life with the taking of life? It is to teach us three simple but profound lessons. First: life is sacred. We learn this from the beginning: every human being is made in God’s image. Second: because we are made in the divine image, our lives possess irreducible value. And third: all humanity is a single family. Through the story of Cain and Abel, we learn that all murder is fratricide.
“Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil,” God tells Cain. God can hear the silent scream of the brother who has been slain.
The sages of our tradition note that the word “blood” in the biblical text is actually written in the plural form—d’mai achicha—“Your brother’s ‘bloods’ cry out to me.” And they ask: Why the plural? The midrash (Gen. Rabbah 22:9) teaches that not only was Cain’s blood shed, but the blood of all of his possible descendants. And so it is with every death; an entire world disappears. As the world watched George Floyd fighting to breathe, as we saw life fade from his body as he struggled and then grew still, we saw so many heartbreaking losses: the sacred spark of life extinguished; a human being lost to his family and friends; all his potential—all that he might have become—forever lost; an entire world destroyed.
Cain and Abel: the tragic story of our primal conflict is still being told. It is built into our nation’s foundations.
In 1937, sickened by a photograph he saw of two young Black men lynched by their fellow citizens, Jewish poet Abel Meeropol wrote:
“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
These words, made famous by the immortal Billie Holiday, teach that in a land whose soil continues to be soaked by the blood of the innocent, all of its fruits are tinged red.
“Listen!” God tells us. “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil.” Today our American soil is stained with the blood of thousands of Black men, women, and children killed by the police. It cries out with the blood of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. It cries out with the blood of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Emmet Till. It cries out with the blood of Ezell Ford, who was walking in his neighborhood; and Atatiana Jefferson, who was babysitting her nephew at home in Ft. Worth; and Botham Jean, who was eating ice cream in his living room in Dallas; and Dominique Clayton, who was sleeping in her bed. And so many more, whose silent screams we are called to hear.
Looking out over our country today, American hero Bryan Stevenson challenged us in a recent interview to view the protests in the context of America’s racist past. He told the New Yorker:
“I think everything we are seeing is a symptom of a larger disease. We have never honestly addressed all the damage that was done during the two and a half centuries that we enslaved black people. The great evil of American slavery wasn’t the involuntary servitude; it was the fiction that black people aren’t as good as white people, and aren’t the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people…So, for me, you can’t understand these present-day issues without understanding the persistent refusal to view black people as equals. It has changed, but that history of violence, where we used terror and intimidation and lynching and then Jim Crow laws and then the police, created this presumption of dangerousness and guilt.”
As the soil cries out with the blood of our brothers and sisters, we are a nation in mourning, a nation that has lost touch with those sacred definitions of life and human connection found in Genesis, a nation seeking to build anew from the devastation and death.
As a people, we have stood in this place before. Every year, on Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, we mark the destruction of the first and second temples, moments of national reckoning and tragedy when the Jews were exiled from their land. We do not turn our eyes away from the tragedy; we mourn for what was destroyed. Like our mother Rachel, who stands on the roadside weeping for her children who have lost their home, we refuse to be comforted. But we also hear the words of the prophet Jeremiah echoing through the depths of despair, “there is hope for your future, your children shall return to their country.”
So we ask ourselves: What can grow from a land stained with blood? How can we heal this country and come home to our cherished American ideals of liberty and justice for all?
As Jews, we know that despair does not have the last word. We know that there is evening and there is morning; a new day will dawn. But it will take all of us to bring back the light.
So let us illuminate this dark night together. May we hear the cries of our brothers and sisters—the silent screams of the dead; the calls of those who suffer, summoning us to stand with them. May we join our voices with theirs and with the groundswell of voices calling for change from every corner of our country.