The Legacy of Kayin

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT BEREISHIT

 

The Legacy of Kayin

 

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Welcome to another season of Introduction to Parasha.  The Jewish New Year, ushered in by the celebration of the High Holidays, perennially begins with renewed hope and expectation.  Though Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are anxious days of awe and judgment, they are also moments of Divine mercy, and we therefore celebrate them confident that we will emerge from judgment with a positive verdict.  This intense period of apprehensiveness, teshuva and reconciliation is fittingly concluded by the harvest festival of Sukkot, as people leave their substantial homes to temporarily dwell in tenuous booths, recalling the sojourn in the wilderness when Israel experienced first-hand the power and compassion of God's providence.  And with the joyous finale of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah that ends the festival and closes the entire High Holiday period, our thoughts in the land of Israel turn to the onset of the rainy season, with all of its unspoiled promise of revival and growth.

 

It is only appropriate, then, that the custom developed many centuries ago to begin anew the cycle of the Torah readings at precisely this time of year.  The Book of Devarim ended with the people of Israel positioned on the river Yarden's eastern bank, waiting impatiently to enter the land flowing with milk and honey. And though beloved Moshe passes away after being afforded an extended survey of the new land, his loyal protיgי Yehoshua straight away succeeds him, Divinely inspired with the "spirit of wisdom" that had been Moshe's preserve (Devarim 34:9).  Moshe dies, but our sadness is immediately assuaged by the reading of the opening chapter of Sefer Bereishit, that describes with austere terseness but palpable anticipation transcendent God's fashioning of the cosmos.

 

Chaos gives way to order and simplicity to complexity, as the fashioning of inanimate matter introduces the formation of vegetation, of sea and animal life and finally of God's crowning achievement, the creation of humanity:

 

The Lord created the earthling in His image, in the image of the Lord He created him, male and female He created them… (Bereishit 1:27).

 

EARLY HUMAN HISTORY

 

Imbued with unique potential, charged with special responsibility, man and woman take their rightful place in paradisiacal Eden as noble stewards of God's pristine world, but their triumph is tragically short lived.  Speedily, almost effortlessly, they naively succumb to the wiles of the serpent and to his hollow promises, and soon they are cast by God beyond the gates of the garden, its eastern entrance that leads to the Tree of Life now ominously secured by the cherubs with their whirling swords of fire.  But they are not to be henceforth denied God's beneficence entirely, for even as He banishes them He first lovingly clothes them in "garments of skins" (3:21).

 

Adam and Chava, reconciled to their sorry fate of exile, soon turn to starting a family, and two sons are born to them in quick succession.  The first, named Kayin, becomes a sower of the soil, wringing forth produce from the adamant and unyielding earth.  The younger son, named Hevel, turns to herding sheep, eschewing acquisitiveness for the nomad's life of quiet contemplation.  But conflict soon erupts as the two brothers present their offerings to God, for Kayin's grudging gift of mediocrity is rejected in favor of Hevel's presentation of "firstborn sheep and fatlings" (4:4).  The older brother, incensed at the Divine rebuff but unwilling to embrace His prescription for penitence, turns against the younger, killing him in a fit of anger and self-loathing.  Brazenly, he then denies culpability, adding to his felony of fratricide the crime of indifference.  Cursed by God, he is condemned to a life of rootless wandering, the stability and security that are so sought after by the farmer now firmly placed forever beyond his reach.  But God is merciful, preserving Kayin from death and providing him with a "sign" as well as an assurance that vengeance will be sorely exacted upon anyone that might design to strike him down.  Thus, the murderer leaves God's presence, taking up residence in the "land of Nod east of Eden" (4:16).  There, he fathers a child named Chanoch and builds a city calling it by the name of his son.  Chanoch in turn begets 'Irad, 'Irad fathers Mechiyael, Mechiyael sires Metushael and Metushael begets Lemech. 

 

THE WIVES OF LEMECH AND HIS CHILDREN

 

The narrative then reports that Lemech takes two wives, the first named 'Ada and the second named Tzila.  'Ada gives birth to Yaval and to his brother Yuval.  The former becomes "the progenitor of those that dwell in tents and tend herds" while the latter becomes the "progenitor of all those that grasp the lyre and the flute" (4:21).  Tzila also produces children, a son by the name of Tuval Kayin who excels at the art of "sharpening (polishing?) and crafting all manner of bronze and iron."  The list of Lemech's descendents is then concluded by the mention of a daughter, a certain "Na'amah who was the sister of Tuval Kayin" (4:22).  What follows next in the text, and the subject of our lesson this week, is a short series of verses that rank among the most murky in the entire Torah:

 

Lemech said to his wives: 'Ada and Tzila hearken to my voice, wives of Lemech pay heed to my pronouncement, for I have killed a man for my injury and a child for my wound.  For Kayin shall be avenged sevenfold, and Lemech seventy-sevenfold! (4:23-24).

 

Finally, the passage concludes with a report of further offspring for Adam and Chava, for the grieving mother then gave birth to Shet (i.e. Seth), so called because "the Lord has placed ("ShuT") for me another child in place of Hevel, for Kayin has killed him."  Shet in turn produces a child and calls him Enosh and then we are informed that at that time "calling in God's name became profaned" (4:26).

 

The difficulties that are raised by the passage are immense, the obscurities myriad, and the helpful details meager in the extreme.  We know nothing else of this Lemech or of his wives, and the names of his three sons and daughter do not resurface anywhere else in the Torah.  Why should this man's pronouncement to his wives be preserved at all, and what are we to make of his curious reference to his ancestor Kayin?  Is there any significance to his children's pursuits and vocations, and why is Na'amah's calling so obviously omitted?  Most tantalizingly of all, who is this "man" and this "child" that have been killed for Lemech's wounds and what are we to make of a vengeance to be exacted seventy-sevenfold? 

 

APPRECIATING THE LITERARY UNIT

 

Though the Rabbis in the Midrash (quoted by Rashi, 11th century France, with some variations on 4:23-24)) provided a fantastical reading for the passage, we will confine our investigations to a more straightforward approach, eventually turning to the interpretation of the Ramban (13th century, Spain) and adapting it accordingly.  We begin by noting that the entire tale of Kayin and Hevel, here referred to as "Chapter Four" of Bereishit, constitutes a self-contained unit in the Torah.  That is to say that the section is set off, both before and after, by a clear break in the text, a blank space in the middle of the line known as a "parasha setuma" ("closed section").  Bear in mind that in the original Hebrew scroll, there are no references to chapter or to verse (nor, for that matter, are there vowels!).  Instead, the text is broken down into sections by the use of a space, in somewhat similar fashion to paragraph indentation.  Either a section of the Torah is concluded by a space and then the text of the next passage is resumed on the same line ('parasha setuma" or "closed section" because the line is completed or closed with text) or else the line is left blank, and the new section is only started on the next line ("parasha petucha" or "open section," since the line is left open). 

 

To return to our passage, then, the birth of Kayin and Hevel, their respective vocations and sacrifices, the Divine response and the act of murder, the resultant punishment and the exile, the birth of Kayin's descendents and the story of Lemech's wives and children, the report of the birth of Shet and the concluding detail of Enosh's epoch, all of them are included in the same section of text, and this section is separated from what precedes (the banishment of Adam and Chava from the Garden of Eden) as well as from what follows (the generations of Adam).

 

RECOGNIZING SOME LITERARY MOTIFS

 

And while Kayin's heinous crime is, insofar as plot is concerned, the central event in the passage, we note that there are a number of interesting literary patterns that frame the dastardly deed.  Firstly, the motif of birth of children as well as their naming constitutes a significant refrain, often with an accompanying mention of vocation.  The passage begins with the birth of Kayin and Hevel to father Adam and mother Chava, continues with the birth of Kayin's descendents and concludes with another birth by Chava, namely of Shet.  We are informed along the way that Kayin was a farmer while Hevel a shepherd, and this pattern is repeated with the listing of Lemech's children.  It is almost as if our passage concerns more than an isolated episode of murder that cuts short Hevel's particular life, and begins to address more generational and universal trends.  Is there perhaps something that is being suggested about the influence of Kayin's deed on the subsequent trajectory of human history?

 

In broader terms, of course, the transition from the Ideal State to concrete human history is the central process that underlines the entire Parasha.  Parashat Bereishit begins with a description of serene and harmonious life in idyllic Eden (Chapters 1 and 2), continues with the exile of Adam and Chava from that place due to their abrogation of God's command (Chapter 3), and concludes with the listing of the generations of Adam (Chapter 5).  But these so-called "ten generations from Adam to Noach" do not unfold neutrally, though the dry listing may mistakenly give that impression.  By the end of the list, the stage has been set for the Flood, for "God saw that man's evil on earth was exceedingly great, and that all of his thoughts all of the day were only wicked.  And God regretted having made man upon earth…" (6:5-6).  The implication is clear: as early human history slowly unfolds, the pristine state crumbles before the moral decline unleashed by man's selfish choices, and it is none other than Kayin's act of murder that constitutes what might be termed the "pivot point" in the process.  But as we have seen, the self-contained unit of Chapter 4 is more than the story of Kayin's act of murder.  Somehow, then, the entire content of Chapter 4 must relate to this crucial paradigm shift, and the key to comprehending the cryptic exchange between Lemech and his wives must be embedded within its verses.

 

Let us note one more thought-provoking detail before turning to the terse but penetrating comments of the Ramban.  Though the passage highlights the tragic shortness of Hevel's life (his name, in fact, literally means "a breath," for such was its futile brevity), the echo of his memory continues to reverberate throughout the chapter.  Recall that the passage concludes with the report of Shet's birth, so called because "the Lord has placed for me another child IN PLACE OF HEVEL, for Kayin has killed him…" (4:25).  Note also that Lemech's three sons, Yaval, Yuval and Tuval Kayin, all form alliterations for the name of the deceased, for the final two letter stem in all of them – VL – is directly taken from Hevel's name!  And Tuval Kayin, representing the seventh generation after the crime, provocatively brings the feuding brothers back together again, for his name contains references to them both!  It seems therefore that this passage concerns not only the isolated deed of the perpetrator but the never-ending effects of the crime on the victim and on his wider familial and communal circle as well.

 

THE COMMENTARY OF THE RAMBAN

 

Let us now turn to the words of the Ramban:

 

What appears to me is that Lemech was a very wise man insofar as all manner of design and creative work is concerned.  He taught his firstborn son the matter of herding in accordance with the nature of the animals, he taught the second son the art of music, and he taught the third how to fashion and to sharpen swords, spears, javelins and all manner of weapons.  His wives were correspondingly afraid that he would be punished, for he had introduced the sword and bloodshed to the world and thus continued the legacy of his ancestor (Kayin), for was he not a descendent of the first murderer and had he not himself created weapons of destruction?  But he said to them: "I have not killed a man by injuring him nor slain a child by wounding as Kayin did, and God will therefore not punish me but will in fact protect me from harm even more than him!"  He meant to suggest that it is not by sword or by spear that a man kills, for one may wound or injure grievously even without these weapons.  It is therefore not the sword that kills, and he that fashions it is not liable…(commentary of the Ramban, 13th century, Spain, to 4:23).

 

For the Ramban, the cue for Lemech's cryptic remark to his wives is the preceding statement about the births, names and respective vocations of his three sons, the very same literary technique that had been utilized by the text to introduce us to Kayin and to Hevel.  The first of Lemech's sons was Yaval, the progenitor of the nomadic herders, while the second was Yuval, the progenitor of all of the musicians.  Both of these skills recall, of course, those of ancestor Hevel who was a "shepherd of sheep."  And while Hevel was nowhere described in the text as a musician, the nomadic life of the tent-dwelling herder often incorporates a strong musical component.  This affinity for music is fundamentally a function of the opportunities for introspection that are associated with the profession of being a shepherd.  As the sheep lazily graze, the shepherd seeks the shade of an overhanging wall of rock and there he patiently waits.  This provides him with ample time for thought, reflection, composition and song.  He may strum his portable harp or play his shrill pipe, and his mind may be inspired to turn to contemplation of the Divine.  Certainly the broad and awesome vistas that are associated with the wilderness where the sheep conveniently graze can only assist the process.  The detachment from the earth and from its grip, part and parcel of the nomad's life, also may spur him on to grasp for more sustaining truths.

 

It should hardly be regarded as accidental that David, who began his career as a shepherd, was also an accomplished player of the lyre as well as a poet (see Shemuel 1: 16:17-19).  And is it at all surprising that insofar as paradigms are concerned, the shepherd in Tanakh is often portrayed as the ideal model for leadership, for he demonstrates not only concern for the sheep but a sensitivity and a striving for higher ideals as well?  Thus, Lemech's first two sons preserved in their names as well as in their vocations the memory of their murdered ancestor and all that he represented.

 

THE RESPECTIVE ROLES OF BRONZE AND IRON

 

But now Lemech turned to other pursuits, for he taught the third boy – provocatively named Tuval Kayin – the art of metal craft.  It should be noted that while the Torah speaks of the lad fashioning and "sharpening" (or should it be rendered polishing?) bronze and iron (4:22) without further elaboration, any student of ancient human history immediately understands the implications of such skill.  It is by these two metals that we tend to benchmark a large chunk of recorded human history, dividing it roughly into ages of stone, bronze and iron. 

 

Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, was the most functional and important metal in the ancient world, and was very early used (3rd millennium BCE) for the production of weapons, agricultural implements, mining tools, household goods and even jewelry.  But iron was another story entirely.  Except for that of meteoritic origin, iron is not found in nature in a pure state.  The art of separating it from its oxides requires so much skill and heat that iron was the last of the metals that the ancients learned to produce, sometime around the 13th century BCE.  The discovery remained a closely guarded secret for obvious reasons: weapons of bronze were no match against those of much harder iron.  He who possessed iron weapons possessed a great advantage over his adversaries.  When the Torah credits Tuval Kayin with the mastery of this process and the Ramban ascribes the inspiration to father Lemech, there is only one possible reading: what has been unleashed upon the world with this momentous discovery is the potential for greater bloodshed, further killing and more efficient murder than ancestor Kayin could ever have imagined!  The Torah itself alludes to iron's less than savory character when it later prohibits its contact with the stones of the altar that must instead be whole and unhewn (Shemot 20:21; Devarim 27:5).

 

Thus it was that the ancient conflict between Kayin and Hevel, the farmer and the shepherd, the materialist and the spiritualist, was played out again between the sons of Lemech who descended from that avaricious landowner.  The first two sons of Lemech were conscious evocations of Hevel while the third recalled Kayin.  And just as Kayin prevailed against Hevel, so too Lemech set the stage for the triumph of Kayin's legacy of murder, by raising his third and youngest son as a fashioner of weapons.  Human history, represented textually in the Torah by the ten generations stretching from Adam to Noach (Chapter 5), would henceforth be conditioned by this new and ominous development, for Lemech's breakthrough would be decisive in changing its course.  But just like his progenitor of old who brazenly denied culpability in killing by deceitfully declaring "am I my brother's keeper?!" (4:9), so too Lemech refused to take responsibility for his deed.  Claiming for himself the mantle of Divine protection even as he deflected His wrath, Lemech in effect coined the empty slogan that would be championed over and over again throughout human history by those that either produced the weapons or else fiercely decried the restrictions on their procurement and use: "guns don't kill; people kill!." 

 

RAMBAN'S READING

 

Transforming Lemech's statement into an interrogative, the Ramban has the old man rhetorically asking his two fearful wives: "…have I killed a man for my injury and a child for my wound?  [I surely have not!]  If Kayin [who murdered] shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lemech [who only produced weapons but did not himself use them] shall be avenged seventy-sevenfold!" (4:23-24). Perhaps there is even a note of sarcasm to be added to Lemech's defensive words, for he seems cavalierly unconcerned with his wives' anxiety.  "What are you two fretting about?" he seems to exclaim, "I have done nothing wrong!  Am I then like Kayin who murdered his own brother in cold blood?"

 

But by setting up the literary framework as outlined above, the Torah in fact makes it abundantly clear that Lemech and Tuval Kayin are in fact to be regarded as the loyal transmitters of Kayin's legacy with all of its lethal repercussions on human history.  Kayin's isolated act through Lemech became a movement, and Kayin's spiritual descendents still fill the world with immense misery.  But God's patient compassion for the killers should never be misconstrued as the condoning of their deeds.  Hevel's legacy also lives on, through Shet who in the end becomes the progenitor of the human race.  Though Kayin and his modern-day ilk, spouting words of incitement and hate, perpetrating acts of callous bloodshed, even today confidently strut in the august halls of world government, Hevel's still small voice is yet heard.  And it is Hevel's legacy that in the end will prevail. 

 

No wonder that some of the ancient Rabbis believed that Tuval Kayin's own sister Na'amah (whose name means "pleasantness") would become the wife of Noach, the same Noach who was "righteous, whole, and God fearing" (6:9).  What the Rabbis meant to suggest, in their endless capacity for optimism and hope, was that Kayin's infamy would be finally redeemed and the world transformed for the better.  The Rabbis adopted that belief even as they painfully acknowledged that terror and bloodshed (embodied by Na'amah's own brother Tuval Kayin) seemed to prevail interminably.  May we continue to be inspired by the ancient Rabbis and by their teachings!

 

Shabbat Shalom