The Development of Civilization
After Cain's heinous act of murdering his brother Abel, God decreed upon him to be a wanderer around the earth. He was never to have a permanent dwelling. It is a basic tenet of Torah that any 'punishment' that God decrees upon a person is not arbitrary, rather it is intended to rectify that person's mistake. By adhering to the conditions of the 'punishment' a person can rectify his initial mistake; living in this state of exile was intended to be the rectification for Cain.
But it seems that Cain did not adhere to the form of rectification that God decreed for him; he tried to avoid it. Immediately after this, the Torah tells us how Cain proceeded. "And Cain was a city builder." The Ramban notes that the wording of the Torah hints to the fact that Cain was constantly building cities but they would immediately collapse because of the curse that he be in constant exile . However, instead of learning from this and accepting his status as a wanderer, Cain continued to build cities throughout his life.
Cain's actions seem to have generated a trend in his descendants to continue avoiding the forms of rectification that God had ascribed to mankind to fix the sin of Adam. He told Adam after his sin that his form of repentance was to work the land with his own hands in order to earn his livelihood . Cain's descendants preferred to avoid working the land and turned to other forms of earning a livelihood. The Torah describes how they did this: ""And Adah bore Yaval; he was the first of those who dwell in tents and breed cattle. The name of his brother was Yuval; he was the first of all who handle the harp and flute. And Zilla, too - she bore Tuval-Cain, who sharpened all cutting implements of copper and iron."
Rashi explains that these innocuous verses are of great significance because they represent the development of some of the basic aspects of modern civilization. Yuval chose to be a shepherd, avoiding God's instructions to work the land. It is also possible that the 'dwelling in tents' in the verse represents the development of business activities, also something not consistent with the form of rectification that God ascribed to mankind. Yuval was the first to develop the art of music; this represents how mankind tried to avoid the pain of working the land by distracting itself with entertainment. And Tuval-Cain was the first to develop weapons which enabled man to survive by overpowering others, another way in which he could avoid the curse to work the land.
We can see from this how the development of mankind was based on a desire to avoid the method which God had given them to rectify the sin of Adam in favor of an easier lifestyle which would not fix Adam's sin. Consequently, mankind developed in a state of ignoring God's will, which culminated in their subsequent moral degeneration and destruction in the Great Flood.
There was one person who did attempt to deal directly with God's directive to work the land: "Lamech… begot a son. And he called his name Noah, saying, 'this one will bring us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands, from the ground which God had cursed .'" Rashi tells us that Noah invented farming tools and this made the working of the land more successful.
Noah was the first person who did not try to avoid the curse of Adam. He faced it directly. This helps explain why Noah was also the one person who God did not destroy. Unlike the rest of the world, his life was dedicated to fulfilling God's will, therefore he was not subject to the moral degeneration that plagued mankind.
A significant lesson that can be derived from here is that very often God places us in a situation from which He wants us to grow but we have a tendency to avoid seizing that opportunity. The rabbis teach us that God communicates us through challenges - this does not just refer to major tragedies, but also to the general difficulties that we all face in life. For example, a person can know which area of growth to focus on in his marriage by noting in which area there is the most friction and how his failings contribute to this problem. God is sending him these difficulties as a way of telling him that he should work on this area of his character traits. One may prefer to focus on aspects of growth that come more naturally to him and ignore the challenge in his marriage. For example, a person who has a leaning to kindness may devote a significant amount of time and energy in helping other people, but he may neglect his obligations to his wife and children.
This week's Torah portion is far more than a historical description of the early generations in history. It is an account of how God communicated to mankind how they should rectify their mistakes and how the vast majority of them refused to heed His instructions. It is upon us to heed their mistake and directly learn from Divine Providence how we can do what He desires from us.