The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bereisheet: Cain and Abel

Last Thursday was Simchat Torah, the day that Jews celebrate having finished the yearly cycle of Torah readings. We read the final lines of Deuteronomy, and the first lines of Genesis, thus starting the cycle over again. The first Sabbath after Simchat Torah, we study the first Torah portion, which is called Bereisheet (Hebrew for "in the beginning), covers the first six chapters of Genesis, up until the introduction of Noah, but before mention of the Flood.

There's a lot there; far too much to go over in a week, and far too much to discuss in one blog post. My rabbi likes to say that every time you reread a Torah portion after Simchat Torah, especially having gone through dozens of such cycles, it's always a pleasant surprise to find something new. And yet we do every time. We walk around thinking we know what's in the Bible, but often the Bible surprises us. We think we know the stories in Genesis by heart, but they are more subtle than we think.

What is the story of Cain and Abel? Pause for a moment and tell the story to yourself.

The story you told yourself probably goes something like this:

After being expelled from the Garden of Eden, Eve has a son named Cain, and then has another son named Abel. Cain grows up to be a farmer, and Abel grows up to be a herdsman. Both brothers offer their produce to the Lord. The Lord accepts Abel's sacrifice and disregards Cain's sacrifice. Cain in a jealous rage murders his brother. The Lord asks Cain where his brother is, and Cain replies, "I know not. Am I my brother's keeper?"

The Lord replies that He can hear the voice of Abel's blood crying up from the ground. The Lord interprets the voice of the blood as cursing Cain. Cain can no longer farm, and is to be a wanderer and a fugitive for the rest of his life. Cain complains that his punishment is too harsh for him to bear, and the Lord provides him with a mark that will protect him from being murdered, warning Cain's potential future assailants that they will be avenged sevenfold for slaying Cain. Cain leaves the presence of the Lord (literally, he departs from the face of YHVH), and moves to the Land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain finds a wife (how?) and builds a city and had sons and many generations of men, including Tubal-cain six generations later. There's a strange story about Tubal-cain's father, Lamech, who kills two people (in what might be self-defense in each instance, although the second person only bruised him).

The story thread ends there and the Bible returns to the story of Adam and Eve with the birth of Seth, and the Genesis narrative continues from there.

Have I left anything out? Yes, I have left two lines: Genesis 4: 6-7. In the original Hebrew, the narrative goes from prose to poetry for these two lines, which is always a sign that the verses are of importance. Between the Lord rejecting Cain's sacrifice, and Cain's murder of Abel, there are the following two verses, in poetic form (linebreaks from the JPS version of the Masoretic text):
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-קָיִן 

:לָמָּה חָרָה לָךְ וְלָמָּה נָפְלוּ פָנֶיךָ

הֲלוֹא אִם-תֵּיטִיב שְׂאֵת 

וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב 

לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ 

וְאֵלֶיךָ תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ 

:וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל-בּוֹ 

The King James Bible translates these verses the following way:
And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?
If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
It is worth pointing out how unique this case of Divine intervention is. The Lord speaks to Adam and Eve, then Cain, then Noah, then the Patriarchs. The Lord speaks to Cain twice, before and after the murder of Abel. When the Lord disregards Cain's sacrifice, Cain becomes very angry, and his face falls (that's the literal: his face falls). Then the Lord speaks to Cain. He checks Cain's anger.

The previous verses have been used to argue that the Lord intends for people to eat meat, because He disregards a grain sacrifice and accepts a meat sacrifice. But I think Cain's sacrifice is disregarded because of his attitude rather than the substance of the sacrifice. Cain's reaction reveals his poor attitude. The Lord notices this and warns him that he has the power to try again with a better attitude, and that he has the power to effect a pleasing result. He warns Cain that if he fails to check his poor attitude, he has provided an opening for offensive behavior ("sin lieth at the door") to overwhelm his self-control. For sinfulness longs to master him, the Lord warns, but Cain with self-control can master his sinful urges.

This is beautiful and so delicate. The Lord lovingly steps in to remind Cain that his anger has put him in profound spiritual peril, and He pleads for Cain to master himself and his rage. That Cain does not heed the Lord's advice does not make that Divine intervention less precious.

I think Cain surprised the Lord when he murdered his brother, just as his father and mother surprised the Lord when they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of the difference between good and bad. The Lord pleads for Cain to regain his own personal dignity. The Lord cannot regard a sacrifice provided with the wrong spirit. Even though the Lord disregards Cain's sacrifice, the Lord has not disregarded Cain himself. The Lord wants Cain not only to try again to do the sacrifice right, He wants Cain to learn to subdue his passions and improve himself.

The sages of the Talmud tell us that the world stands on three things: Torah, worship of the One, and acts of lovingkindness. The Torah had not yet been revealed to the world in Cain's day, but the Lord is trying to teach Cain about the other two pillars of human existence. And teach us.

1 comment:

  1. This is a beautiful interpretation, with a great deal of relevance to we who live today. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.