We read in Parashat Bereishit the story of Kayin and Hevel, which began when Kayin decided to bring an offering to God, after which his brother, Hevel, chose to do the same. For a reason not disclosed by the Torah, God accepted Hevel’s sacrifice, but not Kayin’s. (Rashi explains that God sent fire to consume Hevel’s offering to express His acceptance of the sacrifice.) Kayin felt very distraught, and God responded with a syntactically difficult remark that has lent itself to many different interpretations: “Ha-lo im teitiv se’eit ve-im lo teitiv la-petach chatat roveitz” (4:7). Onkelos – referenced approvingly by Rashi – explains this verse as referring to forgiveness. God was telling Kayin, “If you improve your ways, you will be forgiven, and if you do not improve, your sin will be stored until the day of judgment” – meaning (as Rashi explains), the judgment that will take place after death. The difficulty with this explanation, however, lies in the seeming irrelevance of repentance to Kayin’s situation. He was distressed over his offering’s having been rejected by God, an understandable reaction which does not appear to be addressed by a reminder about the notion of repentance.
Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Rabinowitz of Biala, in his Divrei Bina, suggests a different interpretation of this verse, according to which God indeed directly addressed Kayin’s reaction to the rejection of his offering. The Rebbe of Biala understands the word “se’eit” in this verse (which Onkelos translated as referring to forgiveness) to mean “bear,” or “tolerate.” He explains that God was telling Kayin, “Im teitiv” – if one wishes to act properly, then “se’eit” – he will patiently and humbly accept failure and rejection. Such a person will not fall into despair when he sees that his efforts and sacrifices have been for naught, that he worked hard to achieve but did not succeed. But “im lo teiteiv” – the wrong way to live and act – is “la-petach chatat roveitz” – to see one’s past sins and failures lurking at every entrance, at every bold and ambitious goal he wishes to achieve. As the Divrei Bina writes, those who live wrongly use their prior failures as excuses with which to absolve themselves of the need to work hard to achieve. They allow their mistakes to block the “petach” – the “entranceway” to achievement, to conveniently discourage them from the prospect of achieving in the future.
According to this explanation, we might say that God’s response to Kayin’s despondency was an answer to the question of how to reconcile the bold ideals by which the Torah demands that we live, with our flawed and imperfect reality. How can we be expected to abide by the Torah’s rigorous standards of conduct if our human frailties and faults all but guarantee our occasional, if not frequent, failure? The Divrei Bina’s answer to this question is “se’eit” – living with patience and with the trust in our ability to improve. Kayin’s mistake was despairing when his efforts to earn God’s favor did not succeed, and God therefore taught him the importance of “se’eit,” of patiently bearing the shame and frustration of failure, utilizing it as an impetus to try harder, rather than allowing it to sow despair. Our mistakes should not break our spirits or discourage us, and should instead be viewed as an inevitable part of the lifelong process of growth, which should motivate us to redouble our efforts and strive for greater heights of achievement.