How to Mess Up Your Life

Shabbat B’reisheet—“How to Mess Up Your Life”


By Rabbi Barney Kasdan, Kehilat Ariel, San Diego

How to Mess Up Your Life. As a rabbi, I usually don’t like to give this kind of counsel to people! But the famous story in this first parasha of the year begs the question.   

Shabbat B’reisheet is filled with some amazing revelation of the beginnings of the universe and mankind.  Sadly, it doesn’t take long for humanity to fall from God’s Paradise.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the next generation continued the downward slope as illustrated in the life of Cain.  Actually his birth was perceived as potentially a great blessing.  Not only was Cain the firstborn, but his mother Chava/Eve saw a possible fulfillment of even the messianic promise of Genesis 3:15 (the seed of the woman to crush all evil).  Immediately after giving birth, Chava exclaims, “Kaniti ish et Adonai! I have acquired a man with HaShem!” Literally the Hebrew is better translated “I have acquired a man, the Lord!” This is not only a play on words in the original language (kaniti / Kayin / Cain), but it makes sense that Chava thought her firstborn might actually be the predicted One, even the Mashiach.

Cain would in fact fall far short of such expectations as he brings an inferior sacrifice to the altar of God while his younger brother Abel brings the best from his flock.  Some speculate that the problem was that Cain brought a fruit offering while Abel brought an animal offering.  The text does not make that distinction but something is clearly going on.  A midrash says that Cain actually ate his animal offering and offered some low-grade flax to the Lord.  If that is the case then Cain was in disobedience.  Maybe it was more about attitude.  Whatever the case, the New Covenant states that Abel “offered a better sacrifice” (Hebrews 11:4).   Essentially Cain seems to run into problems because he is doing his own thing.  That is a great first step to messing up our own life, is it not?  Too often people create their own problems by following their own skewed decisions and not listening to God’s counsel in the Scripture.

In this parasha we are told another great way to mess up our lives.  This is by ignoring any loving correction by God.  After his rejected offering, Cain does not correct the situation but goes even further in the wrong direction.  His anger is evident even in his body language and demeanor as God asks, “why has your countenance fallen?”  Cain is offered a way of restoration and blessing but chooses to let the evil inclination take control of his life.  This leads to the tragic murder of Abel, the first recorded in history.  It didn’t have to be this way.  What started as a bad situation for Cain could have been corrected, especially with God’s help in his life.  But he chose the way of anger and resentment which in turn culminated in murder.  This is a sure-fire way to make any situation worse than it already is:  ignore any loving correction from God.  As our tradition says, the gates of repentance are always open.  It is the repeated story of human experience that we mess things up when we do our own thing.  Just look at the daily news!  But how doubly tragic when people not only do their own thing but continue down a road of not receiving loving correction from their Heavenly Father.  The story of Cain reminds us to keep on listening for God’s good direction for our life.

Believe it or not, Cain takes his tragic experience to an even deeper level of tzuris.  In the midst of doing his own thing and not listening to correction, he then proceeds to blame everyone else for his problems!  This seems to come out in two of his statements in the Torah.  First, he asks the famous question “ha-shomer achi anochi? Am I my brother’s keeper?” To paraphrase, “God, why did you put me in this position?” Second, Cain takes issue with the consequences of his actions by asking, “Is my iniquity too great?”  Evidently he questions God in the midst of his judgment.  The tragic spiral of Cain’s life has just hit a new depth.  After doing his own thing and ignoring God’s correction, he simply blames everyone else for his problems!  It seems a logical conclusion as the Torah notes that after all this, “Cain left the presence of HaShem.”  This was no doubt both a physical and spiritual departure.  How sad.  How unnecessary.  But such are some of the lessons from the life of Cain.

Maybe it is quite appropriate that this first parasha of the New Year reminds us all on how to mess up our lives?   If we received the message of the Holy Days correctly, then we have re-established a good relationship with God and with those around us.  It should be a little taste of Paradise restored.  Let’s not mess up our own lives by following the example of Cain.  Let us stay close and listen to our Messiah Yeshua to enjoy that abundant life he promised.   

Shabbat Shalom!

Stephanie Escalnate