"Achi!” “My brother!” These were the words that always greeted me when I got to the meeting point for reserve duty every year, and it was the most common word on everyone’s lips. Achi, which does not easily translate as “my brother”; there is a power to it in Hebrew in that it connotes more than a blood relation, being closer to a “brother in arms.”
This past week we welcomed the ninth incoming class of Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem — seventy 18 and 19 year old boys from 31 different high schools in 27 different cities, including eight public school boys. Perhaps the most diverse group of incoming classmen we have yet welcomed to our Old City halls.
Yet, it has been remarkable to see how they so quickly bonded as a brotherhood. Part of this is by design. It is our belief that boys who are unhappy socially will not be happy in their studies, so from the moment they board the El Al plane to Israel we are focused on creating a sense of community. Yet, there is something more which we cannot plan and which nonetheless occurs, every year.
One of the characteristics of an Orayta Shabbat is the sharing that goes on at the Shabbat meals. On their Friday night at Orayta, boys were standing up and sharing something they had not expected to find and yet did, and one of the boys expressed his surprise, having discovered after only three days he felt he had joined a special brotherhood. I was pleased to see many of the boys nodding their heads in agreement, and I had a flashback to a moment I had forgotten about which I experienced over the summer when we were welcomed by the Bnei Yeshurun Teaneck Jewish community for an inspiring Orayta alumni Shabbaton with close to 50 students participating.
While we have run many college campus shabbatonim for alumni as well as spring getaway retreats, this was the first time we did something like this in the middle of the summer, having noted many students do internships in New York City, and we were pleased to see so many of them come out for the weekend. When I arrived on Friday, boys were still trickling in and I watched the shouts and hugs as they embraced friends they had not seen in a while and heard one of them scream out that same word: Achi!
Another boy this past Shabbat told a story that suggested it is not even about close relationships. A couple of boys on Friday morning had decided they wanted to walk to the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Meah Shearim to buy some Jewish books and explore some of the unique sights and sounds of this special community.
But they were not sure of the way, so they stopped a Jewish fellow wearing a kippah and tzitzit who pointed them in the right direction and then, seeing they still seemed confused, turned around and walked them all the way (a 25 minute walk) while telling them his life story and hearing some of theirs. And this boy realized that in truth, we are all brothers. But what does that mean?
Perhaps, hidden in this week’s portion of Ki Teitzeh, the Torah shares a deeper understanding of this idea.
“You shall not see your brother’s ox or sheep driven away, and hide from them, you shall surely bring them back to your brother. And if your brother is not near you, you shall gather it into your home until your brother seeks it out and the return it to him. And so shall you do … for any lost item of your brother, which you find, you cannot hide [ignore?].” (Devarim 22:1-3)
The Torah is telling us that when we find something someone may have lost we have a responsibility to return it. This mitzvah, known as hashavat aveidah (returning lost property) is actually two mitzvoth as expressed by Maimonides (Rambam, Hilchot Gezeilah Ve’Aveidah 11:1): A positive mitzvah (aseh 204) to return lost items, and a prohibition (lo ta’aseh 199) forbidding us to ignore lost property when coming upon it.
In expressing this mitzvah, the Torah uses the word “brother” (ach) no less than five times.
There are two other places, which mark the beginnings of the Jewish people, where the word “brother” features prominently:
•The story of “Yosef and his brothers” opens by describing Yosef as “shepherding with his brothers” (Bereishit 37:2). Clearly this was a brotherhood by birth, but not of spirit; it is the brothers who conspire, the brothers who see Yosef coming, and the brothers who throw him in a pit. Yet, at the end of their story when they bury their father (ibid. 50:8; 14) they come back to Egypt as brothers — this time, truly, as a brotherhood.
•And at the other end of the story of the Jews in Egypt, Moshe’s first experience as a leader is when he goes out to “see his brethren” (Shemot 2:11). Indeed, Moshe sees an Egyptian beating a Jew “from his brothers,” and he decides, despite having been raised as an Egyptian prince, to see a fellow Jew as his brother.
Rashi, in an unexpected place, shed light on what brotherhood is all about.
Lavan, Yaakov’s wicked father-in-law, has been chasing Yaakov and his family through the night and, catching up with him on the third day, we read (Bereishit chap. 31) of the ensuing conflict which nearly ends in disaster. Yaakov and Lavan finally make what must be a cold peace, each going their separate ways, with Yaakov telling “his brothers” to gather stones and make a monument to their agreement (ibid. v. 46). Yet Yaakov has no brothers to speak of in that moment!
Rashi explains that these are his sons, who became like brothers when they came to his aid in distress and battle. Brotherhood then, is much more than biology; it is a singularity of purpose, and the knowledge that whatever the circumstances arise one knows that there are those who will put aside their differences and truly be there for each other.
The story of Yosef is all about growing from being just biological brothers, to becoming a true brotherhood. And it is not accidental that Moshe, who will ultimately bring the Torah to the world, begins his journey by demonstrating that although he may be an Egyptian Prince, even a Jewish slave is still his brother.
We are given the special mitzvah of returning a lost object to our brothers, just as Yosef sought the brotherhood he had lost as a young man when he went “seeking his brothers” (Bereishit 37:16). And we are enjoined to reach the point where “we cannot hide” (Devarim 22:3).
This mitzvah challenges to reach the point where, when our brother is in pain or loss, we are simply incapable of not being there. That is what true brotherhood is all about. Something to strive for as we get closer to Rosh Hashanah.
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.
Contact Rabbi Freedman: Columnist@TheJewishStar.com