The Torah in Parashat Bereishit tells the famous story of Kayin and Hevel, who both brought offerings to God. After Kayin offered some of his harvested produce, Hevel offered sheep as a sacrifice, and God accepted Hevel’s offerings and not Kayin’s. The Torah relates that Kayin was angered and distraught by the rejection of his offering, and God spoke to him and asked, “Why are you angered? And why has your face fallen?” (4:6). He then assured Kayin that one who acts properly is rewarded, and one who does not will be held accountable for his sins (4:7). Kayin disregarded God’s admonition, and proceeded to kill his brother.
Seforno, commenting on God’s question as to why Kayin felt distraught, explains, “When a blunder has some way of being rectified, it is improper to feel distressed over the past; it is proper instead to try to achieve the rectification for the future.” Kayin erred in allowing the rejection of his offering to cause him anguish, instead if motivating him to try to improve in the future. Along these same lines, Seforno explains God’s subsequent admonition to Kayin as explaining to him that he has the ability to correct himself and improve. The rejection of Kayin’s sacrifice, Seforno writes (4:5), resulted from Kayin’s unworthy character as well as the inferior quality of his offering, and God assured Kayin that his failure in the past did not mean that he would fail in the future. Kayin dwelled on his failure, and this led him to anguish and distress – and, ultimately, to violent rage. God urged Kayin to focus not on the past, but on the present and future; to replace the painful thoughts of what happened with thoughts of how he can improve moving forward. Sadly, Kayin disregarded God’s exhortation, and allowed the negative thoughts and feelings to fester until he violently murdered his brother.
According to Seforno, the tragic story of Kayin and Hevel is about the harm caused by excessive focus on the mistakes of the past instead of looking forward to the future. Dwelling on failure causes pain and anger. Failure should serve not as a source of anguish, but rather as a catalyst for positive change, and when perceived this way, it can lead to joy and satisfaction, instead of negativity and despair.