Facing Our Other Side
Facing Our Other Side
Parashat B’reisheet, Genesis 1:1-6:8
Rabbi Paul L. Saal
Congregation Shuvah Yisrael, Bloomfield, CT
As we begin to explore the story of humankind outside the Garden of Eden, we should be uncomfortable with our first encounter being fratricidal murder. Yet if we are honest with ourselves, we need to admit that we walk away with less emotional investment into this narrative than we have into the average Super Bowl. Lamentably, those of us who are most committed to the inspiration and historicity of the Genesis accounts often accept a pale one-dimensional rendering of these stories that strips away the great complexity of human drama.
Why then does the inspired writer force us at the outset of the human journey to confront such a violent account of sibling rivalry? I believe that the answer lies between the lines of the terse narrative found in Genesis 4. The sages engaged in a homiletic enterprise called midrash, which comes from a word that means “to search.” By developing stories that filled in the missing details of the biblical narratives, they confronted the unanswered questions that arose. Far more important than the static details of the stories are the challenges that they pose to the hearer, and the lessons they teach about the divine-human encounter. If this form of exposition sounds familiar, it should. The inspired authors of the Brit Chadashah, including Yeshua himself, used midrash, and engaged the existing midrash of their day.
If we read Genesis four with this approach, we’ll be challenged by some perplexing questions. What is the nature of Cain and Abel’s relationship? Why does God accept Abel’s offering but not Cain’s? What happened when the brothers confronted one another at the climax of the story? Does Cain ever regret the killing of his brother? And does he ever experience the forgiveness and peace of Hashem? Tantalizing questions such as these invite us to respond personally to what is in many ways our own story.
Bonding with another bonds us to Hashem
Even the opening words beckon us to be immersed in the narrative. V’ha’adam yada et-chavah ishto, “Now the man had known his wife Chavah (Eve).” The verb yada, to know, is more than a mere idiom for sexual relations; rather it expresses a genuine intimacy that joins companionship with procreation. Only through such a relationship between man and woman can there be true reverence for the mystery, dignity, and sacredness of life. Companionship is the primary end of the male-female relationship. The Torah declares, “Hashem created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This expression of primacy suggests that male and female are distinct, unique, and equal halves in the design of human totality.
One Midrash suggests that the first person was created androgynous, with a male and a female side, two faced and unable to see one another. According to Rabbi Samuel b. Nachman, Hashem severed the two sides so they might face one another and the one person might come to truly be able to truly come to “know” his/her other side. Torah states, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This midrash illustrates that a wife is a man’s other self, and visa-versa, all that nature demands for its completion, physically, socially, and spiritually. But the Creator is at the center of this wholeness and intimacy.
The narrative of Genesis 4 goes on to state that the woman conceived and bore Cain, saying, Kaniti ish et-Hashem, “I have acquired a man with Hashem.” What a strange expression. The great medieval commentator Rashi elaborates midrashically, “My husband and I were created by Hashem alone, but through the birth of Cain we are partners with him.” So by this reckoning the Creator is the unseen senior partner in the intimacy, and the man and women are the junior partners in the work of sustaining creation outside the garden. This is even illustrated in the spelling of man and woman. Ish and ishah are distinct because of the yod and the hay, the two letters which form the name of the Sovereign. When we take out the letter yod from ish (man) or the letter hay from ishah (woman) we are left with aish (fire). This is indicative of how we lose the distinctiveness of our two sides and the fullness of our humanity when Hashem is taken out of our relationship.
Finding ourselves East of Eden
The sacred narrator remarks, “And additionally she bore his brother Abel.” The birth of Abel is almost an afterthought, an asterisk in the story of Cain. Abel seems to have little inherent value apart from Cain. In fact his Hebrew name Hevel means a wisp or a shadow. He is a shadow of his older brother in this story. Though he brings the favored sacrifice, the mention of Abel’s sacrifice seems only to illustrate the failure of Cain. Abel neither speaks nor protests until his blood spilled by Cain cries out from the ground, and obvious alliteration; the dam (blood) of adam (man) cries out from the adamah (earth).
Immediately following the birth of the brothers the narrator informs us of their occupations. Like most people today the narrator seems more interested in the roles they play than in who they are. But they are the classic herder and farmer. Abel the herder would be the traveler, the one who would transverse the land. Cain on the other hand is tied to the land, staid and stable. But upon the murder of Abel he and his voice are permanently tied to the earth. Cain is destined to wander the earth and essentially become his brother.
Responding to Adversity
It would appear then that our brethren are destined to bring out the best or the worst in each of us. The contrast between Cain and Abel is accentuated in the offerings each made, and Hashem’s response, acceptance of one and rejection of the other. All the inspired author tells us of Cain’s reaction are these few terse words: “Cain was very angry and his face was downcast.” If only Cain could talk to us now he might have said, “I’ve been wronged; I believed this world was created in goodness, but now I can see that good deeds are not rewarded. Hashem rules this world with an arbitrary power. Why else would he respect Abel’s offering and not mine?”
There may be no adequate answer to give to Cain. Perhaps the Almighty is communicating one of the most important lessons about living outside the Garden. This world we live in is fraught with inequalities. There is simply no guarantee that our best efforts will be rewarded or appreciated.
Hashem again confronts Cain as his brother lies dead in the dust: “Where is Abel your brother?” He responds, “I do not know.” We began with the man knowing his wife, implying a certain intimacy and bonding. Here Cain replies “lo yadati” translated either I do not know or I did not know. Cain suggests that he had knowledge neither of what transpired nor of what was expected of him in relation to his brother. So Hashem gives him a last chance to face his actions and asks, “What have you done!”
The earth, which is the symbol of his stability, is taken from Cain and he becomes a wanderer, a drifter, a wisp like his brother. In killing his brother he becomes his brother. According to another midrash, Abel’s dog became Cain’s dog, wandering the earth with him (B’Reisheet Rabbah 22:13). Still another legend suggests that Cain shared Abel’s fate and was later killed by Lamech, a blood relative five generations removed. “Cain and Abel could be compared to two trees that stood side by side; when a strong wind uprooted one, it fell upon the other and uprooted it” (Jubilees 4:31).
Perhaps Cain might reflect on the lessons learned: “My brother and I are one, I can learn from his lesson. He is not my foil, he is my complement. Truly, if I do well the Creator, blessed be he, will reward my best efforts in kind! I am my brother’s keeper!”
A Better Word
We still live with the reality of human struggle and complexity. We live with the conflict between good and evil, and we wrestle with the apparent inequalities in our world. At times we bemoan our station and our fortune, as if to wave our fist in the air, as if challenging the design of the Master Architect. Sometimes the challenge is within ourselves, as we sense the tug of war between our God-breathed inclination and our propensity to sin. At other times our brothers cover us like a reproaching shadow, replicating our own dark side. The Eden of our dreams at times seems like a lifetime away.
But the promise of the letter to the Hebrews is that we can live in the light of the Age to Come.
On the contrary, you have come to Mount Tziyon, that is, the city of the living God, heavenly Yerushalayim; to myriads of angels in festive assembly; to a community of the firstborn whose names have been recorded in heaven; to a Judge who is God of everyone; to spirits of righteous people who have been brought to the goal; to the mediator of a new covenant, Yeshua; and to the sprinkled blood that speaks better things than that of Hevel. (Hebrews 12:22-24)
Cain, the son of the first person, is every person—human, vulnerable, sinful, even potentially violent; yet he is able to grow. As he reconciles himself with his past and moves on, we are challenged to confront ourselves, and our relationships with others and with Hashem. Are we willing to receive the grace of the Creator through the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Hevel? Do we have the courage every day to allow the Spirit of Hashem make essential changes in ourselves, so we are not destined to live out our lives as we are today? Will we move beyond the inevitable pain of disappointments and rejection, and receive the healing, wholeness and peace of our Creator?