Many of us try to avoid negative emotions as much as possible. We don’t want to feel sad, nervous, or frustrated, so we ignore, escape, or repress. Yet, negative emotions are often functional. They provide important feedback about how we relate to ourselves, others, and our environment. If understood and utilized properly, negative emotions can help us become more successful and meaningful people. However, when unhealthy, negative emotions can distance us from our goals. Depression, anxiety, and anger can be overly distressing, and impede our productivity and growth. Navigating the line between healthy and unhealthy emotions is essential, yet often difficult.

After God did not pay any attention to Cain’s offering, we are told that Cain was “very distressed” and “his face fell”. It is clear that there are two psychological factors being described, but it is unclear what each means. Sforno interprets “distressed” as referring to jealousy that his brother’s offering was accepted, and “his face fell” as feeling shame for having been rejected. Other commentators suggest the former phrase refers to anger, and the latter to depression.

Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (Daat Torah, pp. 26-27) sidesteps the question as to which emotions were experienced, and instead focuses on distinguishing between the functionality of the two emotions. After we fail, it is natural and healthy to feel a negative emotion, whether it be sadness, frustration, or remorse. This functional negative emotion – represented in the verse as Cain being distressed – can motivate us to improve our ways for the future. Yet, Cain’s emotional experience doesn’t end at distressed. It transforms into an unhealthy emotion of “his face fell.” This, Rabbi Levovitz argues, is the way of the evil inclination. It doesn’t just want to knock us down but wants us to stay down. Instead of the negative emotion leading to improvement, it leads to despondency.

In fact, when God addresses Cain afterwards, He informs him that if he chooses to improve his ways, all will be forgiven, but if he doesn’t, then sin crouches at the door, ready to pounce again. It is here, Ramban contends, that Cain is introduced to the concept of repentance. Sforno adds that God is telling Cain that it is pointless to brood over the past. The point is to fix your behavior for the future. Our emotional response to sin should be functional. It should lead us away from future sin and toward improved behavior. If we respond emotionally unhealthy to sin, then it will just lead to more sin.

One strategy for keeping our emotional response to sin healthy is to not let the sin corrode our sense of self. As the Midrash states, “Praiseworthy is the person who is higher than his sins, and not that his sins are higher than he is (Bereishit Rabba 22:11).” We must keep our core identity above our sins, and not have our sins define who we are. As Rabbi Shimon tells us in Pirkei Avot (2:13), “Do not be wicked in your own eyes.” Once we identify ourselves as wicked, evil, or sinful, we are in danger of generating an unhealthy emotion in response to a sin.

If we are to learn from the story of Cain, we need to respond to failure and sin in a functional way. We can do this by acknowledging the sin, feeling an appropriate amount of healthy negative emotion about the past, and most importantly, focusing our energy on improving ourselves for the future.