Bereshit

Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

Cain & Abel: A Teaching on Generosity

Abel was a Shepherd and Cain tilled the soil. And it was, after the passing of days, that Cain brought some of the fruit of the soil as an offering to the Eternal; and as for Abel, he too brought [an offering] from among the choice firstlings of his flock… The Eternal had regard for Abel and his offering, but had no regard for Cain and his offering. Cain was filled with rage; his face fell. The Eternal One said to Cain, “Why are you so angry? Why your fallen face? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin is a demon crouching at the door; you are the one it craves, and yet you can dominate it.”… But then it was, when they were out in the field that Cain turned on his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Eternal said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he replied, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper? [Gen. 4:2-9]

There is no doubt that Cain’s fratricide deserves our most forceful condemnation. Cain is warned by God not to yield to the demon of jealousy, but he miserably and most devastatingly fails, and kills his brother without, it seems, the slightest sense of remorse. And if we limited ourselves to the literal reading of the text, our case against him would be closed just as fast as we opened it. But do we ever? Going a little deeper, we find that this story is not as black and white as it seems; that there may be attenuating circumstances to Cain’s actions that we need to consider. For one, God seems to bear some responsibility in the matter. Not only did He disregard Cain’s offering, but He created an explosive antagonistic situation by approving his brother’s. Any book on sibling rivalry would tell you that this is a big “no-no.” The fact that Cain has a temper tantrum following the incident should have been a red flag for God. Instead, His infuriating response (“Why are you so angry?”) followed by a lecture that seems to be blaming Cain for what happened, only added fuel to Cain’s inner fire. It wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude, therefore, that Cain was provoked, that he was set up by God; and that while he remains guilty, God Himself should be sentenced as well as accessory to murder.

But there is a deeper level yet to this story. A careful reading of the text reveals that while Abel brought the choicest of his possessions as an offering, Cain only brought “some of the fruit of the soil.” Cain, whose name means “to acquire/gain/possess/own,” has a pronounced selfish bent that causes him to withhold his giving. While Abel understands that nothing he has really belongs to him, but to God, Cain does not. He keeps the best for himself. God couldn’t approve of Cain’s half-hearted offering. He tells Cain: “Why are you so angry? You know what you did. You have let your ego, your vanity, dominate you. You harbor the vain illusion that anything in this world could be your possession. You do not have to lose face ‘if you do right’, if you bring the right offering. ‘But if you do not do right,’ if you do not bring the right offering, it is a sin.”

Sin, an archery term in Hebrew, means “to miss the mark.” To sin is to act from a place of forgetting, of ignoring the true nature of Reality, the Oneness that is all. A sinful act drives us away from our Divine center. Our vanity is a sin because it strengthens our false sense of self, our illusion of separateness. It is this delusion that drives us to possess “stuff/people/power” as an illusory validation of our existing as a separate being. God told Cain that he could dominate/overcome this sinful egocentric avaricious trait not by killing it in himself—for this only reinforces it—but by doing right, by bringing full offerings; by practicing acting out the opposite character trait—that of generosity. But, Cain didn’t listen and killed Abel or Hevel in Hebrew, when the name Hevel means: “vanity.” Yet, only vanity would want to kill vanity in itself. What Cain created with this act is the exact opposite of what he aimed for: more separation, and greater alienation from Source.

These past High Holy Days, whatever character trait you identified in yourself that no longer serves you—that might even have become an obstacle in your life, your work, the health of your relationships—don’t fight it. Don’t try to kill it in yourself. Instead, our Torah portion is telling us, practice developing the opposite character trait. In the long run the latter will overtake the former, causing it to shrink into oblivion like a weed we simply stopped watering.

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