Taste of Torah
A Bima-Ready D’var Torah Every Week
24 Tishrei 5777
In the Beginning...
Torah Portion: Genesis 1:1-6:8
Haftarah Portion: Isaiah 42:5-43:10
The creation of the world starts out promisingly enough. God says "let there be light" and "there was light" (Genesis 1:3). The text even gives us an insight into God's reaction: "God saw that the light was good." That word good, tov in Hebrew, appears seven times in the first chapter of the Torah. The land and sea both are good, as are the fruit-bearing trees, the sun and moon, and all the animals. Upon finishing the work of creation at the end of the sixth day, God looks upon the newly formed world and found it not just good, but "very good."
Then it gets bad. After Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden tree, the word "good" doesn't appear for another 11 chapters.[i] Pretty soon God's most prized creation, humanity, engages in insubordination, deceit, and jealousy. By the fourth chapter we've moved on to murder. This descent seems so out of place, so unnecessary in the start of our history, and yet our tradition teaches that every verse in Torah stands to teach us something, so what can we learn from this grim tale?
The births of Cain and Abel are recorded in the first two verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and Abel is killed by the eighth verse. The Torah doesn't devote a lot of time explaining whatever rivalry might have developed between the brothers. Our biggest hint comes from the event immediately preceding the act: "In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to Adonai from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. Adonai paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering God paid no heed" (Genesis 2:3-5).
Malbim, a 19th century commentator, explains God had good reason to accept one offering while rejecting the other; "Cain brought only 'something from his fruits,' a lower quality of produce that he had less need of for his own consumption. Abel, in contrast, brought the fattest of his flock to show the enormity of his indebtedness to God."[ii]
Does that ultimately make God responsible? The Tanhuma imagines a conversation between Cain and God where Cain makes that argument: "I slayed [my brother] because You created the evil inclination in me. . . If You had accepted my offering the same as his, I would not have been jealous of him."[iii]
Add chutzpah to the list of sins enumerated in the opening chapters of Genesis. It should be no surprise God finds this excuse unconvincing.
According to the Tanhuma, Cain offers this explanation in response to God asking "Where is your brother Abel?" And here's the real problem with Cain: he thought God asked the question because God didn't know the answer. God knew exactly where Abel was, and what had become of him, which is why the excuse was never going to work. God asked the question so that Cain could accept responsibility for his actions, but instead he does the exact opposite. As a result, Cain is condemned to be "more cursed than the ground which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand" (Genesis 4:11). The lesson is clear: no matter the deed, denying responsibility for it will only make things worse.
Reading this tale can leave one feeling a bit depressed. God must have felt similar, watching the divine creation unravel. There's a famous Talmudic debate between the sages Hillel and Shammai wondering whether it would be better had humans never been created. Shammai argued that, given our proclivity to evil, we'd all be better off having never been created. For over two years the debate continued before Hillel declared the unarguable truth: Shammai was right. Overall we end up doing more harm than good on this earth, so those never brought into existence are morally superior. It makes no sense God created us. But, Hillel continues, here we are anyway, so we might as well make the most of it.
It's an odd position, but also a comforting one; we weren't created as angels. We were born with free will, a will that can choose both good and evil. Inevitably we will fall short of perfection, as did our ancestors. Fortunately, God gave us the tools to return, through the process of teshuva.We may wish Cain had made a better decision that day, but he chose differently, and sinned all the more when he attempted to avoid responsibility. Why include this story at all? So that we may all learn from it.
[i] In Genesis 15:15 God promises Abraham "you shall go to your fathers in peace, you shall be buried in a good old age."
[ii] Weinbach, Rabbi Mendel. The Essential Malbim. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 2009.
[iii] Midrash Tanhuma Warsaw Edition, Chapter 9.
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Rabbi Jeremy Simons
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