IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES … IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES
It was the best of times … It was the worst of times
By Howard Silverman, President of the UMJC
It was the best of times …it was the worst of times. This opening sentence from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities sums up the first Torah portion of the year – B’Reisheet. In B’Reisheet we read about the creation of the world and the desire of God to bless mankind with a beautiful place to live, companionship, the ability to easily cultivate the ground and bear children and have intimacy with God (Gen. 1:26-31). The second chapter of Genesis elaborates on this condition of blessing. In verse 7 we read that man was formed out of the dust of the ground and that God breathed life into him. This description of the creation of man coming from "dust" and that God breathed life into him shows the unique relationship that man is supposed to have with God and the earth. The formation of woman from the rib of the man and the fact that they were "naked and not ashamed" describes the unique intimacy between man and woman.
All in all, life is supposed to be rich and satisfying. Truly it should be the best of times. We read in chapter three, however, that a breakdown begins to occur in the relationship between man and God with seeds of doubt planted in the mind of the woman and the eventual disobedience of the man and the woman when they eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This breakdown is also evident in the depiction of Adam and Eve hiding from God after they have sinned. There is also a breakdown in the relationship between the man and woman. This can be seen in the words, then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings (Gen. 3:7).Nakedness symbolized the intimacy of man and woman. The need for coverings symbolizes a lack of intimacy. The words of Adam also describe the breakdown in intimacy when he says, The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate (gen. 3:12). In these words, we see that Adam blames God and refers to his wife as the "the woman whom you gave to me." There is clearly a move away from the rich, intimate relationships depicted earlier. The blessings become "twisted" and what to be easy and satisfying become difficult: childbirth would be painful and it would become difficult to till the soil. In addition, the relationship of the man and woman would not be easy to maintain. In other words, man goes from a state of intimacy and satisfaction to alienation and difficulty.
Chapter four of Genesis serves as a paradigm of how this new situation works out in life. The story of Cain and Abel is one of the most famous stories in the Bible. There are popular songs about Cain and Abel, and many are familiar with Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which is based on the story of Cain and Abel. A few years ago PBS ran a program on "the first murder."
Cain and Abel are the two sons of Adam and Eve. Cain, a farmer, is the older and Abel, a shepherd, is younger. They each present a sacrifice to God. Cain presents fruit from the land and Abel presents the best of his flock. God accepts the sacrifice of Abel but has no regard for the sacrifice of Cain. Over the centuries, myriads of explanations have been offered as to why one is accepted and the other rejected. May I suggest that the reason is not that important to the story (although some of the midrashim suggest some moral lessons). The story is about the reaction of Cain. As a result of the choice of his brother’s sacrifice, Cain is angry and downcast. God encourages him to move forward and be careful not to sin and that things would be better. Unfortunately, Cain is blinded by jealous rage and kills his brother Abel. God confronts Cain and his response is arrogant – Am I my brother’s keeper? According to Rashi and others, God desired to give Cain a chance to repent but he would not do so. His response is a challenge to God even raising the question! Therefore Cain is cursed – he would be a vagrant, alienated from God and from the land.
The end result is that both of the sons of Adam and Eve experience alienation and difficulty. Abel, the righteous faithful one, dies at the hands of a murderer and Cain, the angry and arrogant one, experiences a difficult life of loneliness and alienation. God gives Cain a sign that would protect him from the blood avenger but which also would prolong his sentence. This story is a tragedy. It is the opposite of the blessed life that God desired for mankind. Clearly this was the worst of times.
The story of Cain and Abel is really the story of mankind to this very day. We still live in a world marked by alienation and difficulty. Whether one is a follower of Yeshua or not, we face the hardships and struggles that confronted Cain and Abel. Paul says that even though we have the Ruach HaKodesh and the assurance of a restored relationship with God we still suffer
… And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body (Romans 8:23).
There are many believers who come to God in faithfulness and who bring an acceptable offering with the result being that they are martyrs – literally or figuratively or both. When someone dies in faith as a martyr we call it Kiddush HaShem – the sanctification of the Name. God’s name is revealed as holy in the death of godly ones.
There are many examples in Scripture and throughout history of "Abels" who have been martyred for the sake of righteousness. It reminds me of our own people who have been martyred by those who have "gone the way of Cain" – a result of the sinful condition of alienation and difficulty. In the Brit Chadasha, Yeshua’s death is compared to that of Abel. Hebrews 12:24 brings out the point that the death of Yeshua was like that of Abel, being faithful and righteous, but that Yeshua’s death brings atonement. …and to Yeshua, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel. Another way to be "Abel" is to live for the Lord and die to self interest and selfishness. Notice in the text that Abel never speaks. It is ironic that after he is dead, we read that, The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground (Gen. 4:10). In the Brit Chadashah we read, though he is dead, he still speaks (Heb. 11:4). In other words, an "Abel" speaks loudly in his/her actions of selflessness and martyrdom. On the other hand, many follow the "way of Cain". These are people who bring a sacrifice to God, but with a heart that is cold. It is one who may be angry with God because of expectations that have never been met. Perhaps there is an experience of rejection or of envy. Following the "way of Cain" means living primarily for oneself.
Jude (vss. 8-13) describes the way of Cain as those who are wolves in the flock, whose motives are to destroy, and who deny the Lord. However, we could say that even those who follow Yeshua can fall into the destructive ways of Cain, not to the extent described by Jude, but by cultivating strife and anguish in the community of Messiah. The way of Cain destroys. The way of Abel builds. Yeshua said that we can murder someone with our words or our thoughts. A major lesson is that just like Cain, we have a choice. God said to Cain,
"If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it (Gen. 4:7).
Yes indeed, sin is crouching at the door and we must master it. What will we do? Will we entertain the sin or will we overcome it? Will we be like a Cain or an Abel? Will we be a destroyer or a builder? Through the death and resurrection of Yeshua a process has begun, bringing restoration of blessing to the world. In Messiah we are restored to God and now have the potential to be restored to others. The Scriptures give us hope of the day when the whole world will return to the blessings of Eden.
Today may we be like Abel, men and women of faith experiencing a restoration of relationship with God, people, and the world around us.