Perhaps the most famous and oft-quoted words from Parshat Breishit are spoken by Cain after God rebukes him for murdering his brother Abel. Cain says to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9). Cain’s response is not just disturbing, but also deeply repugnant to our moral sensibilities. How could anyone be so cruel and callous towards another human being – and to a brother, no less?
Rabbi Benny Lau offers a fascinating explanation of Cain’s statement. He points out that when God places Adam in the Garden of Eden, He charges him “to work it and to keep it” (l’ovdah u’l’shomrah). Adam’s purpose is twofold: to work the earth, and to keep watch over God’s creation. Rabbi Lau explains that these two charges find expression in the division of labor between Adam’s two sons: Cain was a farmer who worked the land (l’ovdah), while Abel was a shepherd who kept the flocks (l’shomrah). And so when God rebukes Cain for killing his brother, Cain responds, “Since when am I the keeper? That’s Abel’s job. I’m the worker!”
Cain is cursed and punished by God: He is fated to become a ceaseless wanderer across the face of the earth. Apparently, God does not accept his attempt to absolve himself of the responsibility of being his brother’s keeper. We all would do well to learn from Cain’s mistake. No one is allowed to be a worker without also being a keeper. We may till the earth, but we also have the responsibility to tend it. We may work hard to advance our careers, but we still have to make time in our lives to care for other people. And, as we learn from the first story in this week’s parsha, we may work for six days, but we still have to keep Shabbat.