We are reading the Book of Genesis these days. Every Shabbat in synagogue, we listen dutifully to the weekly parasha. But somehow, it all seems to fly by so fast. Occasionally, while listening to the Torah reading in shul, we’ll stop to read a perplexing story more carefully. But before we know it, the person reading the Torah is up to the next aliyah. So we shelve our thoughts, and follow along -- with a vague hope that maybe we’ll remember the idea next year and get to explore it some more.
If you’ve ever wanted to “stop the train”, and get off and look around at the sights a little -- consider this the invitation you’ve been waiting for. I invite you to come with me on a on a little adventure. Spend ten minutes a week with me over the next two months or so -- and we’ll take a fascinating journey into the heart of one of the Torah’s most basic, primal stories: The tale of the World’s First Murder, the story of Cain’s killing of Abel. It is a story that has much hidden meaning, awaiting our discovery. We’ll read it slowly and take our time – even as the scenery of the rest of Genesis flashes by our weekly window.
There are lots of legitimate questions we can ask about the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. But I'm going to begin this discussion of the episode by asking you a question that I consider to be wrong-headed and misleading. The question, I think, is based on a fundamental misreading of the text. But I'm going to ask it anyway.
Why would I do such a thing? To be perfectly frank, if I thought I could get away with ignoring the question, I would. But I don't think I can. The question is too obvious and too troubling. My guess is that most people who look at the Cain and Abel story are immediately bothered by some shape or form of this question. So we might as well talk about it. If we don't, you'll just think I'm avoiding it.
To see the question, we need to briefly summarize the story we are looking at. Here's a 30 second snapshot of the narrative -- followed by my best, devil's-advocate-style rendition of a question I don't really believe in:
Cain and Abel, children of Adam and Eve, each bring offerings to the Lord. The Almighty expresses pleasure with the offering brought by Abel, but not with that brought by his older brother Cain. Cain becomes very upset. Shortly afterwards, he kills his brother Abel.
Well class, there's more to the story than that, but why don't we stop here for the time being. Let's go around the room: Is everyone here happy with this story?
I see a lot of shaking heads.
OK. What's wrong with this picture?
What's really jarring is the pattern of behavior embarked upon by the Almighty.
To be sure, the story doesn't leave you with that warm and fuzzy feeling inside. But what's really jarring though, is not Cain's act of murder. We know from experience that human beings are capable of doing really bad things. What's really jarring -- at least at first glance -- is the pattern of behavior embarked upon by the Almighty.
Cain brings an offering and God turns away from it to favor Abel's gift instead. Abel's gift was nicer and prettier perhaps than Cain's. The text suggests as much, telling us that Abel brought, "from the first of his flocks and from their choicest," while we hear no such detail about Cain's offering. But a little voice inside us asks insistently: Why does God have to reject one and accept the other?
Imagine for a moment the scene: You're the mommy, and Bobby and Debbie, your sparkling, wonderful children, are both working on some surprise homemade birthday presents for you. They've got their colored pencils out, and are busy creating custom art projects for you. Soon enough they are done, and each comes over to display their work. Debbie walks over first. She proudly shows you her colorful, detailed drawing. She points to the hills, to the sunset, to the little cabin by the stream next to the trees. And she presents the picture to you with a gleam in her eyes: "Here, Mommy ... its your birthday present!".
Next it's Bobby's turn. Bobby's drawing isn't as detailed. It hardly has much color, and the people who inhabit its landscape are mostly stick figures. Bobby looks at you expectantly, and now it's your turn to speak.
What do you do?
Every parent in the world knows what to do. You smile, you look at Bobby, you look at Debbie, and then you say: "My, what beautiful pictures you children have made for me!" And you smother them with love and appreciation.
And what happens if the kids are insistent? "No, Mommy, really!" they squeal, "Tell us which painting you like better!" What do you do then?
Well, you know the drill, "I think they are both wonderful," you say, as convincingly as possible, as you shoo them off to bed, "They are each beautiful in their own way!"
"Come on, Bobby, look at what Debbie made for me. Now there's the way to use your crayons!"
And what do we think of the parent who doesn't take this approach? Imagine a parent who gently praises Debbie for her meticulously drawn houses, for the carefully chosen hues of green she used for the grass and flowers. But then she turns to Bobby and her expression changes as she surveys the choppy lines and scribbles. She exclaims, "Oh, Bobby! What kind of drawing is this? You call these people? They are barely stick figures. And that's a sunset? Please, I can barely see the sun. Come on, Bobby, look at what Debbie made for me. Now there's the way to use your crayons!"
This is not what most of us would call good parenting. It's the kind of thing, we would worry, that's going to put Bobby on the psychiatrist's couch for many years later down the road.
So now let's look at the Cain and Abel story. Both Cain and Abel offer their "presents" to God. And God doesn't smile and say "My, they're both so wonderful!" Instead God rejects Cain's offering and accepts Abel's.
But I thought parents aren't supposed to do that.
What's going on here? In the story of Cain and Abel, don't we have a classic case of Bobby and Debbie on our hands? What are we to make of the fact that God dismisses our intuitive parenting advice? Is the Bible trying to disabuse us of our "modern" notions of parenting in favor of something more stern and unforgiving?
Bobby and Debbie Redux
Before giving you my solution to this problem, allow me to make matters worse for a brief few minutes. Let's get back to Bobby and Debbie and ask: What happens next?
Imagine you were Bobby and Debbie's mother, and when your two children had each presented their respective gifts to you, you had inexplicably disregarded that basic rule of parenting, and had favored Debbie's gift over Bobbie's. Now a half hour later you walk by Bobby's room and find him weeping softly into his pillow. You ask him what's the matter and he turns to you and whimpers, "You told me you didn't like my present..." and then comes the kicker, something my child has tried on me one or two times. He says, "Mommies aren't supposed to say things like that to their kids."
How would you react to Bobby's plaintive cries?
Instinctively, most parents -- even those who had initially favored Debby's gift -- would be unable to resist the sight of a weeping Bobby. Most of us would recognize the error of our ways, would scoop Bobby into their arms and apologize for having turned our back on his gift. "You're right," we'd tell him, "Mommy loves you and I'm so sorry for not accepting your gift the way I should have." We'd apologize; we'd tell Bobby we'd had a hard day at work, we weren't paying enough attention; we'd tell him it won't happen again; we'd tell him just about anything in our desperate attempt to make things right.
But that's not how it happens in the Cain and Abel story.
God does not tell Cain that everything will be just fine. Instead God challenges Cain, asking him whether he really has a right to be angry.
Just after God rejects Cain's offering, and immediately before Cain murders his brother, the Almighty speaks to Cain. But God does not soothingly tell Cain that everything will be just fine, that his offering really was pretty good after all. Instead God challenges Cain, asking him whether he really has a right to be angry:
Why are you angry and why has your face fallen? Is it not the case that if you do well, then lift up! And if you don't do well, then, sin lies crouching at the door. (Genesis 4:6-7)
What if the parent who had accepted Debbie's gift but not Bobby's had told the weeping Bobby that if he had done better everything would be just fine; that he should just get over it. Most of us would be ready to pick up the phone and call Social Services. But, how then, are we supposed to come to grips with the Almighty's words to Cain?
And now, dear reader, the ball is in your court. I mentioned before that I felt that the questions I am asking here are not really legitimate. It is my view that the analogy to Bobby and Debbie is faulty and misleading. If you re-read the story of Cain and Abel carefully, I think you should be able to spot the flaw; you should be able to see why Bobby and Debby's sorry plight actually has little indeed to do with the story of Cain and Abel.
We'll compare notes next week.
This series is excerpted from Rabbi Fohrman's 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