It’s good to be back writing these musings. I’m starting fresh from the start of the Torah, with B’reishit.
I knew what I wanted to write about this week – but I was struggling with how to find a connection in the text. It’s a subject about which I have written in the past. Since I couldn’t find a truly great connection, and I promised myself and my readers that after my hiatus I’d be writing all new musings and avoid recycling old ones, I’m just going to point you to that earlier musing to read, after a brief introduction. Then I’ll turn to what I finally decided to write about this week – Cain.
The subject (and old musing) in question is the ethics of synagogues and other Jewish institutions avoiding (quite legally, but ethically not so much) participation in unemployment insurance plans, and the significant hardship this creates for non-clergy synagogue personnel. I’ve been ranting on this subject for several decades now, yet the shanda persists. One could (fairly) argue that I’ve been in the Jewish Ed profession long enough to know and plan for this, but we all know that we are already grossly underpaid for our work, so it’s no easy for us to set aside for times of generally unanticipated being out of work. The issue has risen to the surface again for me as I find myself again under-employed, and a little help in the form of unemployment insurance payments would be truly a G”dsend. That’s all I’ll say for now, but I urge you to read this old musing, and raise the subject with the leaders of your synagogue, day school, or other Jewish organization.
And now, on to B’reishit.
As I was studying the parasha, trying to find a connection to the subject about which I really wanted to rant, I paused briefly to consider one small bit of text to see if it could be wrangled into my argument about the ethics of Jewish institutions not contributing to unemployment for their employees. (You just knew I wouldn’t let it go, didn’t you?)
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה אֶל־קָיִן לָמָּה חָרָה לָךְ וְלָמָּה נָֽפְלוּ פָנֶֽיךָ: הֲלוֹא אִם־תֵּיטִיב שְׂאֵת וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ וְאֵלֶיךָ תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל־בּֽוֹ:
And Ad*nai said to Cain:
Why are you distressed,
And why is your face fallen?
Surely, if you do right
There is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin couches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master.
Personally, I do find the way that synagogues and day schools hide behind Federal and State exemptions vis a vis religious institutions and unemployment insurance sinful, but I can see where many might find that notion a bit of a stretch. After all, the supervisors of those institutions do have an obligation to work to try and minimize additional expenses that allow them more funds to use for their core mission. (However, it could just as easily be argued that the very people most affected by the unavailability of unemployment insurance are those who contribute most significantly to the core mission of synagogues and day schools.)
Working in the Jewish professional world is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there are plenty of people committed to creating a truly ethical environment for all. On the other hand there are numerous tales and evidence of grievous and unholy treatment of clergy, professional staff, volunteers and laity. A good friend of mine is suggesting that I finally give up on working as a professional in the Jewish world, that it has given me nothing but grief. Yes, it has given me a goodly share of grief, but it has also provided innumerable moments of reward (though usually of the intangible and non-financial variety.) It is what I do and it is who I am.
I can’t really compare synagogues and day schools to Cain. His sin is truly, as a certain someone has been saying lately, HUGE. However there are words for our institutions to heed here, for if they do what is right, there is uplift, and if they do not do right… And we CAN master our sinful urges, says G”d.
But I digress (so what else is new?)
The context of the quote form B’reishit is Abel (Khevel) and Cain (Kayin) making offerings to G”d, and G”d showing favor to Abel and basically ignoring Cain. Parsing it a little closer provides something that will gladden the heart of my fellow omnivores. Abel’s offerings were best of his flock. Cain offered the fruit of the soil. God preferred the choice firstlings of Abel’s flock to Cain’s fruits and veggies. Hmmmm. Parsing it even closer, however, might show us that the real issue was that Abel brought choice firstlings, whereas Cain simply brought “fruit of the soil” so perhaps the issue was more one of quality and not type. The inference is that Cain’s offering was, well, ordinary, but Abel’s was a more meaningful sacrifice. (We won’t get into the question of how, in a less than a single generation, Abel was already able to identify which of the firstlings of his herd were the choicest. Perhaps this was knowledge passed down by dad and mom that they gleaned from eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.)
Anyway, it was in sensing Cain’s disappointment with G”d’s response to his offering that G”d uttered the words above.
Following those words comes what may be one of the most significant lapses in the text of the Torah.
וַיֹּאמֶר קַיִן אֶל־הֶבֶל אָחִיו וַֽיְהִי בִּֽהְיוֹתָם בַּשָּׂדֶה וַיָּקָם קַיִן אֶל־הֶבֶל אָחִיו וַיַּֽהַרְגֵֽהוּ
Cain said to his brother Abel and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.
Most translations use an ellipsis in the text like this:
Cain said to his brother Abel…and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.
Sidenote: by definition, an ellipsis is a lapse in the text that assumes the missing text is superfluous and self-explanatory from the context. That is clearly not the case here, so I’m not at all sure I agree with the editorial choice to use an ellipsis here. I think I might actually prefer something like
Cain said to his brother Abel [missing text and context] and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. In the collection of G”d’s parenting mistakes and learning curve, this is another prime example. Show favor to one brother over the other. A mistake that will get repeated later on by others. On top of that, give the kid a lecture.
Something less obvious, but which has always troubled me, is that in the accounting of people with whom G”d personally interacted, we rarely hear Cain mentioned. But Cain was singled out, even before his horrendous sin, for direct communication from G”d. (The text doesn’t mention what Cain may have responded, but given his penchant for being a smartass, as demonstrated a few verses later with the famous “Am I my brother’s keeper?” retort, I’d be surprised if Cain hadn’t made a wisecrack here too that got omitted from the text.) In the subsequent verses 9 through 15, G”d and Cain clearly have a two-way conversation. Think about that. Cain is right up there with only a very few people that had demonstrable two-way conversations with G”d. (G”d spoke TO a lot of people in Torah and the rest of Tanakh, but clear two-way conversations are the exception and not the rule.) Remember, too, that Cain not only argues with G”d, but convinces G”d to mitigate Cain’s punishment by agreeing to mark him (the mark being a sign of Divine protection) so that others would not kill him (of course this begs the question of who else was around to possibly kill him. Sigh.) G”d loved and respected the brother-murdering Cain enough that G”d acceded to the request for protection. Now put this in the context of what comes later in the Torah about murder, revenge, cities of refuge, etc. G”d could have simply killed Cain for slaying Abel. Instead, G”d simply made farming difficult, and made Cain to become a wanderer. Not exactly eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life, is it? Cain’s punishment is sometimes cited by those working to abolish the death penalty. However, just go on a few chapters to 9:6 in parashat Noah and read:
שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָֽאָדָם בָּֽאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֶת־הָֽאָדָֽם
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in G”d’s image did G”d make man.
Clever, G”d. I see what You did there. Felt icky drowning all those people, didn’t it, even if they were corrupt and evil? So you put the onus for life for life upon Your creation instead. Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Back to B’reishit.
If you’ve read my posts before, you know I’m fond of working to redeem irredeemable texts. So the thought of trying to redeem Cain is tempting. The first place to look, of course, is at G”d. As I mentioned, G”d wasn’t exactly demonstrating smarts when G”d favored Abel’s offerings over Cain’s offering. However that does not excuse fratricide.
So we’re back to that ellipsis. Obviously, some discussion ensued between Cain and Abel after G”d lectured Cain. The rabbis and commentators have a field day with this one. Property rights, inheritances, sexual and procreative desires, the existence of justice in the world, greed,and more. I haven’t researched this diligently, but I haven’t found any references to a commentator suggesting that Abel did something teasing or mocking or otherwise goading to Cain. (In fact, one creative midrash suggests that it was Cain who dared mock G”d by asking why the G”d of all the universe would let him kill his brother.) Again, that doesn’t excuse fratricide, but it at least shows that Abel had some imperfections, too. Cain went for the fruits and veggies, and Abel went for slaughtering some animals. If we put the quality issue aside, which is truly the better offering? The rabbis just need Cain to be the bad guy and Abel to be the good guy, but, as is often the case on Torah, it’s not so clear. (One midrash does try to pin some blame on Abel for having glimpsed the shekhina when his firstlings were consumed in heavenly flame as a sacrifice. Yeah, right.)
Let’s consider another redeeming thing. Cain eventually seems to accept that he has done wrong and accepts G”d’s punishment. He does seem to be remorseful. Translation is a subtle thing.
וַיֹּאמֶר קַיִן אֶל־יְהוָֹה גָּדוֹל עֲוֹנִי מִנְּשֽׂוֹא
Does Cain say “My punishment is too great to bear?” or might Cain be saying “Is my sin to great to be forgiven?” Both are reasonable translation of the Hebrew.
As I mentioned earlier, G”d reacted positively to Cain’s concern that he might be killed as a result of the severity of the punishment, and G”d relents and agrees to mark Cain for his protection. If G”d were viewing Cain’s words as only self-serving, and with no hint of remorse, would G”d react so graciously? (Remember, this is a G”d that, at least early on, shows some very Trump-like characteristics, and is easy to goad.)
Looking at the brothers’ names might afford some understanding. Consider that Cain’s (Kayin) name comes, according to folk etymology, from the Hebrew root קנה that means to acquire, purchase, buy. (The word, in later usage, means metalworker or smith. The last mentioned descendant of Cain, Tubal-Cain, was noted as being sa creator of copper and iron implements. There are several other etymologies. But here the text clearly links it with the verb kaniti, קָנִיתִי “I have acquired” in the same verse. Nevertheless, I don;t put it past the Biblical authors to have engaged in a lot of really subtle wordplay.) The probable Hebrew root חבל of the name Abel (Khevel) means breath, vapor, emptiness, vanity. (As in the opening of Qohelet/Ecclesiates.) In plain terms, it could be that Cain’s name means something of value, and Abel’s name means something valueless. Were the Biblical writers trying to tell us something here?
Abel’s death was tragic, especially so as it was his brother who murdered him, but, as cruel as it sounds to say, Abel was, essentially, expendable for the sake of the narrative. He really was a wisp, a vapor – here for a brief moment in the story, and then gone. Cain lived on (though his descendants didn’t down the line didn’t all fare so well.)
So, since we’ve come to that, I’ve got a chance to mention what I have stated is perhaps the single most courageous act in the entire Torah. Even after the pain of watching one son kill the other, Adam and Chava (Eve) went ahead and had another son, Seth. Wrap your head around that. But again, I digress.
So why did G”d treat Cain with such mercy? Did Cain have redeeming qualities? Is he redeemable? If so, why? Like so many things in Torah, it’s not entirely clear. As we turn it and turn if, often we find more confusion instead of more answers. (Of course, I might also suggest this is quite purposeful. Perhaps Torah’s best quality is that it cries out to be read and read over and over because it is not, as it claims much later on in the text, to not be baffling and to not be difficult to understand, if only we keep it near to our hearts and mouths. Or maybe it really is that simple, and we just haven’t found the key to truly understanding it in simple terms?)
In the end, perhaps the best answer I can think of comes, as it often does, from a musical. As regards Cain, these words of Oscar Hammerstein II might be the answer. I can’t quite picture Cain singing this, but I suspect he too may have been puzzled as to why G”d spared him in the end (even with the punishment.)
Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
Perhaps I had a miserable youth
But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past
There must have been a moment of truth
[here I’ll leave out the lovey-dovey stuff, as it doesn’t quite fit the scenario]
Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good
(from “Something Good,” in “The Sound of Music” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II)
I suspect I’ll be speculating on this – on what Cain may have done that merited G”d’s mercy and compassion, and on what conversation took place between Cain and Abel before they went into the field where Cain murdered his brother. There’s a ripe chunk of potential historical fiction, right up there with the likes of “where did Isaac go after the akeidah?” (and if you’ve read my musings, you know I’m still working on that biblical novel that tells the story about my theory of the years Isaac spent living with Ishmael and Hagar after Abraham tried to offer him as a sacrifice.) More to think and write about. Yay!
©2016 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this parasha:
B’reisheet 5776 – Temptation
B’reisheet 5775 – One Favorite Things (not a typo!)
B’reisheet 5774 – Toldot Adrian
B’reishit 5773 – Mixing Metaphors
B’reishit 5772 – The Unified Field Theorem of the Twelve Steps
B’reishit 5771 – B’reishit Bara Anashim
B’reishit 5770 – One G”d, But Two Trees?
B’reishit 5769 – Do Fences Really Make Good Neighbors
B’reishit 5767 – Many Beginnings
Bereshit 5766 – Kol D’mei Akhikha
Bereshit 5765 (5760) – Failing to Understand-A Learning Experience
Bereshit 5764 – Gd’s Regrets
Bereshit 5762–The Essential Ingredient
Bereshit 5763–Striving to be Human
Bereshit 5761–Chava’s Faith
Bereshit 5760-Failing to Understand