Kayin and Hevel
This week, we begin anew the reading of the Torah. Scarcely have we concluded the closing passages of Devarim that poignantly describe Moshe's death and burial, when we immediately return to the Torah's opening passage, the story of the Cosmogony and of the creation of humanity. The never-ending cycle of study so celebrated in Jewish tradition thus unfolds again with reassuring regularity, even as our larger world sometimes appears to teeter with uncertainty.
With a suddenness that parallels this abrupt turning from beginnings to ends and ends to beginnings, our Parasha recounts the disquieting story of man's exalted creation and ensuing ignominious failure. Alone among all of God's creatures, Adam and Chava are endowed with moral capacity, spiritual sensitivity, and a yearning for transcendent meaning. How hastily and tragically they forfeit their rightful place in the scheme of things by abrogating His command, and choosing to partake of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge! Banished from idyllic Eden, these progenitors of mankind are instead condemned to lives of toil and grief, and to die the death of mortals. But for their descendents, they unwittingly initiate the painful process, still unfolding to this very day, of attempting the return to Eden.
This week, we shall examine the account of their children, the first brothers to merit the Torah's attention, the first human relationship to end in homicide. The story of Kayin and Hevel, Cain and Abel, is distressingly succinct, for so many critical details seem to be lacking from the narrative. We know nothing of their upbringing or their formative experiences, while the struggle that ends with the calamity of Hevel's untimely death is described with scarcely any significant detail. We are thus obliged to scrutinize the few facts that the Torah does provide, in an attempt to arrive at a more profound understanding of this murderous act and its aftermath.
Their Birth and Sacrifice
"Adam loved his wife Chava. She became pregnant and gave birth to Kayin, for she said 'I have fashioned (literally 'ACQUIRED') a man with God'. She gave birth again to his brother, to Hevel. Hevel was a shepherd of flocks, while Kayin was a worker of the land. After a year, Kayin presented some of his produce as an offering to God. Hevel also brought an offering from among his firstborn sheep and fatlings, and God was attentive to Hevel and to his offering. But He did not turn to Kayin or to his offering, and Kayin was very angry and downcast. God said to Kayin: 'Why are angry and downcast? If you improve your ways then you will be uplifted, but if you do not improve, then iniquity crouches at the door. Its desire is towards you, but you shall rule over it'" (Bereishit 4:1-7).
This brief passage sets the backdrop for the most dastardly deed to follow, the cold-blooded murder of Hevel by his brother. The maddening lack of any larger context, however, hampers our attempts to understand its underlying causes. Clearly, Kayin is terribly upset about the rejection of his offering, but we grope in vain for a text-based rationale as to why God rejects it. Perhaps the brief introductory profile that the Torah provides can guide us in our investigation.
The Brothers' Names
We begin by wondering about the significance of Kayin's name, for already the Parasha has indicated to us that names carry great significance. Didn't God Himself assign names to day, night, dry land, and the seas (Bereishit 1:5, 8)? Didn't Adam also engage in assigning names to all of "the animals, the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field" (Bereishit 2:20)? Did he not even designate the name of the first woman as "Chava, the mother of all (human) life" (Bereishit 3:20)? Obviously, Chava chooses the name of her firstborn carefully, for in so doing she intimates that she has been instrumental in his creation. As Rashi (11th century, France) explains: "When God created me and my husband, He alone created us. But with this birth, we have become His partners" (commentary to 4:1). In other words, Chava here describes the miraculous nature of birth, for through this process human parents partake of the grandeur of creating new life, of 'fashioning a person with God'.
At the same time, the omission of any basis for Hevel's name is puzzling. Chava does not indicate what prompts her or her husband to call their second child by this name. It may be significant that elsewhere in Tanakh, the root HVL signifies 'futility' or 'emptiness,' such as in the recurring refrain of the Book of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes that "all is vanity" ('HaVeL HaVaLim'). In Rabbinic usage, the root is extended to mean a 'vapor' or 'breath' (see Shabbat 119b concerning the continued existence of the world being dependent upon 'the breath (HeVeL) of children engaged in Torah study'), since these quickly dissipate and vanish without a trace. In hindsight, these various meanings certainly constitute apt descriptions of Hevel's short and unrealized life, but we must begin to wonder if there may be other implications.
Kayin's Produce and Hevel's Sheep
The other introductory piece of information concerns the brothers' vocations and their particular gifts, and here we have our most promising piece of information for unraveling some of the narrative's mystery. Hevel was a shepherd while Kayin was a farmer, and this detail is needed to explain the difference in their respective offerings. Kayin presents God with the proverbial fruits of his labor while Hevel offers "from among his firstborn sheep and fatlings." Significantly though, while the Torah seems to credit Kayin with initiating these acts of sacrifice, it utilizes no additional adjectives to describe the produce that he presents. "Some of his produce as an offering" suggests nothing unique or outstanding, in glaring contrast to Hevel's gift that consisted of "his firstborn sheep and fatlings."
The Torah is careful to indicate that Hevel brings his firstborn and fatling sheep, two characteristics that suggest a deliberate selection of his best from among the flocks. Later, in the Book of BeMidbar (18:17), the firstborn of the flock will be designated as particularly suitable for the Cohanim, who minister before God at His sanctuary. The fat of the sheep sacrifice, according to the sacrificial service spelled out at great length in Sefer VaYikra, is to be consumed on the altar as one of the components of the offering that secures God's favor (3:9-11). Thus, the Torah's emphasis on the particulars of Hevel's offering not only implies that his was precious and prized, but also indicates in no uncertain terms that Kayin's sacrifice was not the best of his harvest
In other words, though Kayin presents sacrifice to God, it is a perfunctory act that is devoid of any emotional involvement or desire for communion with the Deity. To utilize Rashi's (11th century, France) phraseology, Kayin's sacrifice consisted of the "poorest" of the produce. His act of 'worship' could be more accurately described as an act of appeasement, for his presentation does not reflect man's deepest yearning for connectedness with God, but rather the superficial fear that to fail to court His favor will result in misfortune. No wonder that Hevel's sacrifice finds favor while Kayin's is rejected.
The Aftermath of Rejection
At this point, God intervenes and indicates to Kayin that his anger and dejection are misplaced, that the favor in God's eyes that he so seeks is yet attainable. "If you improve your ways then you will be uplifted, but if you do not improve, then iniquity crouches at the door. Its desire is towards you, but you shall rule over it." Kayin's true battle is not against Hevel, but against his own inclination, his own failure to cultivate goodness. The rage that he feels against his brother is, on the most profound level, anger at his own inadequacy and deficiency. Remarkably, God does not belittle the challenge that Kayin faces, for achieving change will indeed be difficult when confronted by an inclination or nature that resists so valiantly. The proverbial 'iniquity that crouches at the door' is an expression that captures the essence of his struggle, for lurking in his heart are powerful voices that counsel stasis, stagnation and sluggishness rather than spiritual growth and moral development. Nevertheless, Kayin's act of sacrifice can yet find favor if it becomes a sincere expression of a contrite and transformed spirit.
"Kayin spoke to Hevel his brother, but when they were in the field, Kayin arose against his brother Hevel and slew him. God said to Kayin: 'Where is your brother Hevel?' Kayin responded: 'I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?' He (God) said: 'What have you done? Hark! Your brother's blood cries out to Me form the earth!" (Bereishit 4:9-10). Again, we are left in the dark concerning the conversation that Kayin initiates between them. Does he endeavor to implement God's counsel to improve by attempting reconciliation with Hevel, only to later become overwhelmed with the uncontrollable rage that had consumed him earlier? Or does Kayin offer honeyed words as a premeditated attempt to lower Hevel's guard, so that the latter is taken completely by surprise by his brother's subsequent attack? The consequence of the conversation is anywise the same: murder.
In a marked departure from the example of his parents, who shifted the blame for their failures but never denied culpability, Kayin rejects any involvement in Hevel's death. Countering God's penetrating question with one of his own, he will not assume responsibility for fratricide. Not for naught does the Torah utilize the term 'brother' five times in the course of these two verses, to emphasize the heinous and fiendish nature of Kayin's crime: blinded by jealousy and consumed with rage, he has slain his own brother, his own flesh and blood, his companion and dearest friend. What a black veil of tragedy descends upon the world with his nefarious act. Where can solace be sought in its aftermath!
And yet, there is hope. Kayin is cursed, exiled, and condemned to wander, but God spares his life. In shame and infamy, Kayin flees God's presence to wander the earth 'east of Eden,' but God nevertheless marks him with a 'sign,' so that "none that find him shall kill him" (Bereishit 4:15-16). Kayin finds a wife and begets a son whom he calls 'Chanoch,' and builds a city in the latter's name. Chanoch himself has children and grandchildren, descendents over the course of many generations, but ultimately all of them are swept away by the torrential waters of the Flood, as recounted in next week's Parasha.
The Import of the Account
How are we to understand the import of this passage? What are its primary lessons? Of course, the story of Kayin and Hevel stresses the fundamental idea of God having granted humanity unhindered and autonomous moral choice. Kayin freely decides to kill his brother and though God looks on with horror, He does not intervene to stay his hand. At the same time, Kayin's attempts to escape Divine scrutiny are revealed as futile, thus introducing another indispensable truth: God is aware of human action and holds man accountable for his crimes. To commit murder is to be sentenced to exile, infamy and the threat of imminent death. Perhaps most importantly, the passage introduces the idea of Teshuva or return to God, both before as well as even after the fact. Man can resist even his most potent urges in order to change for the better, but a man that has succumbed can yet find his way back to God's presence.
The gravity with which the Torah views Kayin's act, the burning infamy with which it is sketched out, might lead us to dismiss his act as an extreme case that can provide us with little practical guidance. But that would be a monumental error. The story of Kayin and Hevel is not simply the story of two brothers who could not embrace, two individuals whose struggle led to avoidable tragedy. Rather, the story of Kayin and Hevel, the first two brothers, is, like the rest of this Parasha's accounts, the story of humanity, the brotherhood of man. The lives of Adam and Chava and their immediate descendents are a microcosm of the trials, challenges, and failures that have confronted the human race throughout its turbulent history.
The Farmer vs. the Shepherd
Let us again carefully consider the fleeting reference to their respective vocations in order to unravel the narrative's most pressing difficulty: what causes a man to kill his brother? "Adam loved his wife Chava. She became pregnant and gave birth to Kayin, for she said 'I have fashioned (literally 'acquired') a man with God'. She gave birth again to his brother, to Hevel. Hevel was a shepherd of flocks, while Kayin was a worker of the land." Kayin, named for 'acquisition,' was a farmer who worked the land, while Hevel, named for 'futility,' was a shepherd. These two occupations, landowner and shepherd, inform many a Biblical passage. The farmer is entrenched and settled. He wrings produce from the earth and brings forth bread from its rocky soil. The shepherd is semi-nomadic, roaming the countryside in search of forage for his flocks.
Often, the Biblical narratives regard these two as archetypes: the landowner typifies the man who has acquired success through his hard work, but always stands in danger of succumbing to self- aggrandizement and its ruinous corollary – forgetfulness of God. Thus, when Moshe warns the people of Israel about Canaan's temptations, he states: "Be careful lest you forget God your Lord, ceasing to fulfill His commandments, ordinances and decrees that I enjoin upon you today. Lest you eat and become satiated, build fine houses and dwell in them. Your cattle and flocks will multiply, your silver and gold will increase, and all that is yours will grow. Your heart will become proud, and you will forget God the Lord who brought you forth from the land of Egypt and the house of bondage…" (Devarim 8:12-14).
The shepherd, in contrast, is a contemplative type, conditioned by his wandering and travels to regard most of life's material possessions as transient and of little ultimate worth. The shepherd is always mindful of God's providence and can never be deluded into believing that mortal man can secure eternity through edifices of stone. It is no wonder that many of the Tanakh's most celebrated prophets and leaders were either shepherds or else rural and landless Cohanim, while the objects of their caustic condemnations were frequently wealthy landowners for whom the value of material acquisitions often exceeded the value of human life. Amos, perhaps the Tanakh's most outspoken champion of 'social justice,' was a herdsman of the hills of Tekoa and an forthright critic of Samaria's landed aristocracy: "Because you oppressed the poor and took his measure of grain from him, you shall not dwell long in the houses of hewn stone that you have built, nor drink the wine from your enchanting vineyards. I know how numerous are your iniquities and how great are your transgressions, O you enemies of the righteous, takers of bribes, and perverters of the justice due the poor!" (Amos, 5:11-12).
Kayin vs. Hevel and Man vs. Man
Kayin, therefore, the man whose name means 'acquisition' (from KaNaH), cannot part with the best of his produce in order to express submission to God. For Kayin, hard-won materiality is too precious to be squandered on the Deity, communion with Whom he does not sincerely seek. His offering is rather a hedge against the downturn, a pathetic attempt to secure God's guarantees without embracing His demands. Kayin's painless 'shortcut,' however, is upstaged by the offering of his brother Hevel, the shepherd and seeker. For Hevel, possessions are not the gauge of a man's value and ultimate meaning is not to be found in avaricious accumulation of goods, influence or power. By declaring the futility of blinding amassment, Hevel introduces us to the possibility of transcendence, of apprehending God not through the renunciation of materiality and its trappings, but rather through their elevation. Do with less and you will discover that you have more – more of what is genuinely important. Thus, "the first child she called by the name of 'acquisition' and the second 'futility,' because a man's possessions perish and disappear…" (commentary of the Ramban, 13th century, Spain, to Bereishit 4:1).
No wonder men like Kayin can be so consumed by their desire for more that they lose sight of the ultimate value of human life, sometimes treating it as another commodity to be peddled in the marketplace. No wonder men like Kayin can become enraged by Hevel and his ilk, by those who proclaim in word and deed life's spiritual inviolability. No wonder men like Kayin can contemplate and countenance the unspeakable.
How telling are the comments of the Ramban (13th century, Spain), who detects in Kayin's punishment a fitting conclusion to the entire account. Condemned to wander, to himself experience the nomadic way that alone holds the key to his inner transformation, Kayin finds a wife and begets a child, Chanoch. For this boy, though, Kayin builds a city: "He built a city and called the city by the name of his son Chanoch" (Bereishit 4:17). The Ramban perceptively notices an anomaly in the account of this building, for elsewhere the Torah utilizes the past tense to describe the process of construction: "(Nimrod) BUILT the city of Nineveh" (Bereishit 10:11), "The children of Gad BUILT Divon" (BeMidbar 32:34). Here, however, the text literally states: "Kayin loved his wife and she became pregnant and gave birth to Chanoch. He WAS BUILDING a city, and called its name 'Chanoch' after his son" (Bereishit 4:17). The use of the present tense indicates that "all the days of his life were occupied with building that city, for his endeavors were cursed. He built some of it with great effort and toil but then was forced to wander, only to eventually return and commence building again…" (commentary to 4:17). In other words, Kayin could not cease from building that cursed city, for it consumed him just as its antecedents had possessed him with the insatiable desire to have more. The 'landowner' has here become completely owned by the land.
The tragic story of Kayin and Hevel must give us all pause. The forces that the two 'brothers' unleash on the world continue to animate individual lives, communities and nations. The blind acquisitiveness of Kayin still holds men in its throes, and Hevel's protests can yet be faintly heard. Although in our Parasha Hevel the man perishes, the ideals of Hevel live on through the third of the brothers, Shet or Seth: "…Chava gave birth to another child and called him Shet, for God has placed for me ('ShuT') another child, in Hevel's stead, for Kayin killed him" (Bereishit 4:25). In the end, Kayin's descendents all perish in the Flood, while Shet's children become the progenitors of a post-diluvial restored humanity. So may it be for us.