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Cain's Creative Passion. The World's First Murder, Part 12

Cain's Creative Passion. The World's First Murder, Part 12

Our passions can be directed to drive us to greatness, or they can pull us into the depths of self-destruction.

by

Eve hears words whose echo will later speak to her son, Cain, as well, "Your teshukah shall be to your husband, yet he can rule over you..." (Genesis 3:16).

The end of the sentence sounds harsh, and one can wonder whether, over the centuries, it was used by authoritarian husbands to justify the use of an iron hand at home. But just because the verse may have been used that way, doesn't mean this is what it really means. In Hebrew the verb "rule over" -- moshel -- is spelled identically to the noun mashal, a word that means "parable." The similarity suggests a relationship between moshel and mashal, between "ruling over something" and "parables." What might this be?

Why Parables Rule

Why do people tell parables? Parables aren't just stories. They are stories that are meant to interpret reality. Something happens and it seems inexplicable. When I try and explain to you what has occurred, when I try and make sense of it, I give you a story, a parable, which I present as comparable in some important way to what happened.

In that sense, parables can be said to "rule" over experience. An experience in and of itself is blind and raw. It is composed of an almost infinite array of tiny events and subtleties, and can be viewed in a myriad of ways. A good parable helps us sort out what is essential from what is incidental. It takes a series of events and directs our understanding of them in a particular way.

What does a good "ruler" do? He takes the raw energy of the nation he is privileged to lead and directs it towards certain ends. The energy of a nation is a blind force; it can be used in an infinite variety of ways. In submitting a budget proposal to Congress, a president is in fact setting an agenda; he is submitting his vision of where the country ought to be going, and his intention to direct the energy of the nation -- its wealth -- towards certain, hopefully productive ends. A ruler takes raw energy and decides how to make wise use of it.

That, in a word, is the challenge which the feminine places before the masculine. As we discussed earlier, it is the teshukah, the desire, of the feminine to establish a relationship with the masculine and share her life-force with him. That places a responsibility in the lap of the masculine. He must decide what he will do with this gift. Newly empowered by his union with woman, man finds himself wondering what he will do with his life, how he will direct this powerful energy outside the immediate confines of their personal relationship. He must decide what goals to achieve using that which has been entrusted to him.

Looking Past the Devil in the Bright Red Suit

The echo of these ideas -- of teshukah and moshel, of feminine and masculine -- occurs not thirty verses later, when God speaks to Cain about his Evil Inclination, "Its teshukah will be for you, yet you can rule over it..."

As I mentioned before, we are used to thinking of the Evil Inclination as "evil." That is certainly understandable, especially considering its name. But the sages of the Midrash seemed to have other ideas. They include the Evil Inclination as among the four primal forces that experience "teshukah," a desire born not of lack but of fullness. They seem to envision the Evil Inclination as some kind of life force that overflows, and then seeks to share itself with man. Although this at first seems counterintuitive, when you really think about it, it shouldn't be all that surprising.

It is worth asking ourselves: What, really, is this thing we call the Evil Inclination? In Serpents of Desire we considered this question in some detail. I suggested there that we often think of the Evil Inclination as something vaguely metaphysical or blatantly childish. We might picture a devil dressed up in a bright red suit, complete with horns and tail, or an angel with a little too much time on his hands who sits above our left shoulder and whispers bad advice in our ears. But in real life, what is this thing?

The Midrash offers a clue. According to the Bible, when the Almighty looked back on the whole of creation, He declared "behold, it was very good." The rabbis of the Midrash saw this as a pronouncement about the goodness of the entirety of creation, even its unsavory parts, "...and behold it was very good," this refers to the Evil Inclination.

The comment seems astounding -- but the rabbis immediately clarify their thinking, asking the obvious question:

 

Can the Evil Inclination really be classified as "very good?" It seems impossible! Rather, were it not for the Evil Inclination, a man would not build a house and would not marry a woman; he would not have children, and would not engage in business... (Bereishis Rabbah, 9:7)

 

 

The Evil Inclination is nothing more or less than our passions, the desires that fuel us and make us go.

 

The Evil Inclination, in real life, is nothing more or less than our passions, the desires that fuel us and make us go. These desires, far from being inherently evil, are an essential part of our humanity. A man without passion builds no house and never marries. Cut off from ambition, he in the end builds nothing worthwhile out of his life.


Of Cars and Steering Wheels

So if the Evil Inclination is so good, why is it so bad?

That, I think is precisely what God was trying to explain to Cain in His speech, "Its teshukah is to you, yet you can rule over it."

The passions are not in and of themselves evil. They constitute a powerful life force, inherently benign, whose only "desire," as it were, is to establish a relationship with you. They want to overflow, to give of themselves to you. But the power of these passions is awesome -- and awesome power, when left raw and undirected, can indeed lead to great evil.

If Cain "does well," if he properly directs his passions, then "lift up!" -- he can lift up his face and look himself in the mirror in the morning. But if he does not do well -- if he fails to direct these passions; if he stays neutral and lets them run wild in his soul -- well, that itself may not be a sin, but, "sin lies crouching at the door." It's only a matter of time before the engine we call passion, cut off from the steering wheel meant to guide it, drives its rider over the nearest cliff.

The responsibility thus devolves upon Cain to "rule" his passions. Not to crush them, but to direct their power and energy, as a ruler directs the energy of the nation he governs. A car isn't a car if you destroy the engine. But it's also only a safe vehicle if you decide to use the steering wheel. (1)

Why Now?

Why did God make this speech right here, right now?

A talk about passion, steering wheels, and the dangers of neutrality is all very nice and fine -- it sure seems a nice thing to put somewhere in Deuteronomy -- but what does it have to do with the issues that Cain is struggling with right now? I think we can assume that when the Almighty spoke the words He did to Cain, He was not just looking for an opportunity to make a good speech; He was talking directly and personally to Cain. Cain is stung by God's rejection of his offering and is contemplating harm against his brother. What guidance is this speech offering him?

It is time to return to the mysterious linkage the Bible seems to create between our story, the episode of Cain and Abel, and the saga of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Earlier, we noted how the language that describes the expulsion from Eden is vividly recreated in the verses that describe the aftermath of Abel's murder. God asks Adam and Cain the same "ayeh" question; Adam hides from God, and so does Cain; Adam suffers exile and difficulty in farming, and so does Cain. But these ideas are not merely repeated from story to story; they intensify from story to story as well. With Adam, God quests after a temporarily missing person (Adam); with Cain, He quests after a permanently missing one (Abel). Adam hides momentarily; Cain, forever. Adam is exiled, but can find a new home elsewhere; Cain is condemned to never call anyplace "home."

The pattern of similarity and intensification seemed to suggest that the story of Cain and Abel is a more "intense" version, somehow, of the Adam and Eve story. It appears that one story sets up the other; that the challenges that befall Cain are precisely those we might expect in a world where mankind has just partaken from the Tree of Knowledge. But why is this so? What does a tale about eating some nice-looking but forbidden fruit have to do with a bout of sibling rivalry that unfortunately ends in murder?

The answer, in a word, is "passion." Passion, and its proper role in the psyche of man, is the conceptual core of both these stories. To see how this is so, though, will require a short journey back into territory we covered earlier, in Serpents of Desire. Let's refresh our memory.

Who is Afraid of the Big Bad Snake?

In Serpents of Desire we argued that the essential temptation of the primal serpent revolved around how man is meant to relate to the voice of desire, of instinctual passion, that he finds inside him. Animals, such as snakes, follow God's will not by listening to commands, but by obeying their passions, by listening to their natural, God given instincts and urges. Every time a lioness hunts a gazelle, or a Grizzly bear plucks a salmon out of an Alaskan river, an animal has followed the voice of God.

The snake holds out the possibility that perhaps man should adopt the same approach to his relationship with the Deity, "Even if God said do not eat from the trees of the garden... [so what]" (see Genesis 3:1).

 

Which divine voice will you listen to? God's spoken words, or the voice of God that beats inside you -- the voice of instinct, passion and desire?

 

God may have told you not to eat of the tree, but do you want to? If so, you are faced with a contradiction: Which divine voice will you listen to? God's spoken words, or the voice of God that beats insistently inside you -- the voice of instinct, passion and desire?

Speaking for myself, the snake argues, it is not much of a contest. The voice of desire, for an animal, always reigns supreme.

In the act of reaching for the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve succumbed to the snake's argument. As a result, they changed. They elevated the role of passion in their lives, increasing the power of the engine that burns inside of them. In so doing, they became more powerful -- but they also introduced an element of imbalance into who they were. Their "engines" might be more powerful, but their "steering wheels" -- their ability to control and channel their passions -- had not changed at all. The basic challenge of the post-tree world is this: When you take the V6 engine out of your Camry and replace it with a V10, how do you effectively steer the car anymore?

It is that challenge which Cain, and all subsequent inhabitants of the post-tree world, are left to grapple with.

From Eden to Cain

The story of Cain and Abel, at first glance, seems a sorry tale of sibling rivalry which tragically gets out of hand. But as we have seen recently, the story is about much more than sibling rivalry. There is a deep passion that Cain is contending with. This passion is a force of dizzying power, and it "wishes," so to speak, to do nothing more than bond with Cain and fill him with its life-affirming power. Cain, somehow, must rule over it, must direct its power.

What is the name of that passion?

Did you ever wonder why Adam and Eve, in the wake of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, were -- of all things -- fearful of their nakedness? If they sensed that the desires and passion within themselves were stronger than before, that these were now forces to be feared, why was it then that it was precisely their nakedness, their new consciousness of sexuality, that they feared? There are other passions in the world. Why is sexuality singled out?

The answer, I think, is that the Tree of Knowledge was not just about passion in general. It was, somehow, about a particular kind of passion:

 

The snake argued to Eve: God ate from this tree and created the world. He doesn't want you to eat from it, for if you do, you will be empowered to create other worlds. Everyone knows that a craftsman hates his competitors... (Midrash, Bereishis Rabbah, 19:4)

 

More than anything else, the Tree of Knowledge, according to the sages, was about the mysterious and sublime drive to create.

In the realm of human biology, creativity expresses itself in sexuality; hence, Adam and Eve, immediately after eating from the Tree, fear their nakedness. They feel dwarfed by this force called sexuality. But creativity expresses itself in many other realms, too. One of those realms is agriculture. In agriculture, creativity expresses itself as the desire to plant.

Sexuality and planting...

Cain, the first living product of the miracle we call human sexuality, the child of a mother who exclaims in ecstasy that she has acquired a man with God -- he chooses to become a farmer. We argued earlier that this was not a coincidence. Cain devotes his life to create with land, just as his mother had created with her womb.

The drive to create -- or even better, the drive to create in partnership with God -- is perhaps the deepest passion we human beings can know. This passion is so deep and sublime, it is quite nearly godly. As our friend the snake once said, if you eat from the Tree..."you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil..." (Genesis 3:4).

But this same passion, ironically, can also be the source of great evil. Indeed, as we remarked once before, the words "Evil Inclination" are only an approximate translation of their Hebrew equivalents. The original Hebrew words are "i>yetzer hara." As we mentioned in Serpents of Desire, the term yetzer comes from the word yotzer, which means "to create." Rendered literally, the Evil Inclination, at bottom, seems to be nothing more than "the drive to create gone awry."

What the Almighty was telling Cain, I think, is that even a passion as holy as the drive to join with God in creation must still be channeled. As ironic as it sounds, this apparently spiritual drive can potentially be destructive; it can force a wedge between man and the source of all creativity, God Himself. Whether creativity becomes holy or destructive mostly depends on who is doing the driving: The engine or the steering wheel.

What, precisely, does holy creativity look like, and how do you tell the difference between it and its fraternal twin, destructive creativity? These are the questions that God's speech puts out to us, front and center. And it is to these questions that we shall return next week.

This idea is expressed nicely in another Midrashic comment made by the sages. We quoted their saying in Serpents of Desire, but it is worth calling attention to it again:

 

The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to man: I have created the Evil Inclination, and I have created Torah, its "tavlin." If you take the "tavlin," you will be fine; if not, you will be endangered...

 

The word tavlin here is often translated as antidote, as if to suggest that the Evil Inclination is a sickness that must be cured, a cancer that must be gotten rid of. But that is not the literal meaning of the word tavlin. In Hebrew, tavlin actually means "spice" -- the stuff you go into a supermarket and get to help you with dinner that night. The sages are in fact saying something remarkable. What is it that we put spice on? We put it on food, we put it on meat. If the Torah is spice, the Evil Inclination is food. Passion is the meat, the stuff of life itself. Torah is the spice that directs how it tastes. Without Torah, passion is bland -- undirected, and ultimately dangerous. With Torah, passion is the dish of kings.

(1)This idea is expressed nicely in another Midrashic comment made by the sages. We quoted their saying in Serpents of Desire, but it is worth calling attention to it again:

 

The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to man: I have created the Evil Inclination, and I have created Torah, its "tavlin." If you take the "tavlin," you will be fine; if not, you will be endangered...

 

The word tavlin here is often translated as antidote, as if to suggest that the Evil Inclination is a sickness that must be cured, a cancer that must be gotten rid of. But that is not the literal meaning of the word tavlin. In Hebrew, tavlin actually means "spice" -- the stuff you go into a supermarket and get to help you with dinner that night. The sages are in fact saying something remarkable. What is it that we put spice on? We put it on food, we put it on meat. If the Torah is spice, the Evil Inclination is food. Passion is the meat, the stuff of life itself. Torah is the spice that directs how it tastes. Without Torah, passion is bland -- undirected, and ultimately dangerous. With Torah, passion is the dish of kings.

 

 


 

 

This series is excerpted from Rabbi Fohrman's new book, "The Beast that Crouches at the Door: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Beyond." To purchase a copy visit www.jewishtextstudy.org or visit www.amazon.com

 

Published: January 26, 2008

Article 11 of 16 in the series World’s First Murder


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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Heather, January 30, 2008 10:19 AM

I stand amazed!

As God is leading and teaching me, your articles have confirmed these new teachings. Other words that I have heard in describing this 'passion' are the flesh, the sinful nature, which have not sat well in my spirit. I have sent for your book, 'The Enemy Within' and wait for it to arrive with much anticipation. Thank you for your faithfulness in teaching and may the blessings of God fill you to overflowing for what you have poured forth to reach the many.

(3) Donald, January 29, 2008 12:08 PM

WHo Would Have Thought...

B"H

Wow, another amazing lesson from the rabbis at Aish! I never would have thought - instinctively - that my "evil inclination" was really a good thing, and that instead of being afraid of it, all I had to do was spice it up a little, so that it [yetzer hara] would be channeled properly, and a Torah creation would be the result.

Thank-you so very much, and I am also remembering to pray for R' Noah Wineberg (AMU"Sh).

(2) yonah, January 29, 2008 10:00 AM

I love this series! I look forward to reading it each week. I am gaining a lot.

Thanks,
Yonah Ginsburg

(1) Rox (goy), January 29, 2008 8:47 AM

Wild oats

Well, I'll never think of the phrase "sowing your wild oats" in quite the same way ever again. :)

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