Insights into Genesis
Parshas Bereishis is a gold mine of famous biblical stories and quotations, right from the very first verse: "In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth." That, I'm afraid, is the problem.
Unfortunately, we know that the more familiar something is, the less likely we are to appreciate it. And since Genesis has been trivialized like no other portion of our Torah (with the possible exception of the Red Sea and the 10 Commandments), reduced to the hackneyed "Bible stories" of stage, screen cartoon...and even Hebrew school (!), we have to be especially diligent in searching out the profound wisdom and complexity actually contained therein.
Let's have a look at some deeper dimensions of one of the most famous stories in this parsha, the old tale of Cain and Abel. Sorry...Kayin and Hevel, to be precise.
Here's what we probably remember: Kayin was a farmer, and Hevel, his younger brother, was a shepherd. They both brought offerings to G-d. He accepted Hevel's. In a fit of jealousy, Kayin rose up and slew him in the field. Whereupon Hashem, in an angry and thunderous voice, called out, "...Where is Hevel, your brother?" Kayin responded with the world's first snappy and sarcastic comeback, "I don't know...am I my brother's keeper?" Hashem cursed him, put a mark on his head (cool, man!), and sentenced him to wander the earth. Time for recess.
What's actually going on here? We know that Kayin and Hevel were the children of Adam and Eve (Chava) but do we know anything else about them? Does the Torah reveal anything about what kind of people they were?
For elaboration and insight, we obviously need to turn to our oral tradition, contained in the Talmud and the Midrash, and to our great Torah commentators. Here's some of the real story:
A person's name is never accidental in the Torah; it always reveals something about his or her essence. Rabbeinu Bachya, in his celebrated medieval commentary, explains that the name, "Kayin", is derived from the word, "kinyan"-- "possession." (This is clear in the text, for Chava openly proclaims, "I have acquired a man [in partnership] with Hashem.") He explains that the name hints at a decisive element in Kayin's character: a strong attachment to the physical goods and pleasures of this world.
As does his livelihood, perhaps: the Torah chooses to tell us that he was an "oved adamah", a "worker of the ground." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt'l, suggests that Kayin's choice of farming as a profession might well have reflected, and reinforced, a tendency towards enslavement to the physical, besides developing other unwelcome traits: " "...the worker on the land comes to worship the forces of Nature on whose influence the success of the fields he serves is visibly dependent. The agricultural peoples were the first to lose the pure consciousness of G-d and humanity, there slavery and polytheism were first begotten." (Hirsch Chumash--I, p. 97) "Hevel," on the other hand, means, "vapor" or "vanity," as in King Solomon's famous refrain in Ecclesiastes, "Vanity of vanities...all is vanity." Rabbeinu Bachya explains that the name hints at his humble mind and bearing, at his assessment that worldly possessions were--in and of themselves--not very important. Likewise, his choice of profession reflected and reinforced this trait: he was a "roay tzon", a shepherd, a vocation prominent in our heritage (Moshe, David) because it both develops humane feelings and encourages contemplation of godliness.
Just as their work reflected their respective natures and outlooks, so, too, did the offerings they brought to G-d. Kayin's, the Torah tells us, was, "mi- p'ri ho'adama," from the fruit of the ground. Rashi explains that this means, "from the inferior ." [One opinion in the Midrash is that it was flax.] What's more, the Torah says that Kayin brought it, "miketz hayamim,"(literally, "at the end of days"), a puzzling phrase usually translated as, "after a period of time." Hevel, in contrast, brought, "of the firstlings of his flock and from their choicest." (Artscroll Chumash, p. 21)
Was Kayin's sin that he acknowledged G-d only as an "afterthought," whereas Hevel offered his very best?
Rav Moshe Sternbuch, shlita, a contemporary Torah sage living in Jerusalem, offers a reading with a bit more subtlety--appropriate for the great spiritual figures Kayin and Hevel were. He explains that Kayin's offering reflected a basic conception of the world: first enjoy physical pleasures, for their own sake, and then acknowledge the One who provided them. The pleasures of the body, on the one hand, and the obligations of the soul on the other. Hevel displayed his opposing conception of earthly life: the physical world itself, and its pleasures, were to be used for the sake of growth and spirituality. By giving the firstborn to Hashem, he was declaring that all of his subsequent endeavors (and worldly successes) would be devoted to His service.
Hashem's acceptance of Hevel's offering, then, reveals that G-d "sided" with Hevel's outlook: even physical pleasures must be enjoyed "l'shem shamayim," for the sake of furthering our spiritual development. The body should be a servant to the soul.
The aftermath of this was, as we know, that Kayin, crestfallen and fearing that he would now be supplanted as the chief progenitor of the coming world (Ramban), killed his brother. Jealousy and rage certainly seem to have been components of the act. But there is more to the story than that.
"And Hashem said to Kayin, 'Where is Hevel, your brother?'" Rashi explains that it was not a thunderous voice raised to terrify or intimidate: it was an overture, "to enter with him into words of gentleness, [so that] perhaps he would repent and say, 'I have sinned to you.'" And the meaning of Hevel's answer--"I don't know; am I my brother's keeper?"--is the subject of fascinating explorations by our commentators that take us far beyond simple chutzpah.
Malbim, for one, explains it as wonderment, rather than impudence: he didn't understand (or fully accept) that a person has free will, and so he was saying, "Am I the one who can guard my brother from the misfortunes of the natural world...including my own lethal passions? Aren't You the one who guards human beings from these evils? Why didn't You guard him from my murderous intent?" Malbim quotes an amazing Midrash that says Kayin actually blamed Hashem Himself for the murder, since He was the One Who created the yetzer hara (evil inclination) in a person! [Note the obvious similarity to Adam HaRishon, who earlier in the parsha, also blamed Hashem for his transgression.]
As with any Torah topic, we could go on and on; 1000 websites could not house the wisdom of even one word of Bereishis. This was just a sampling, to whet the appetite...and silence the voices inside us that tell us we already know it all from Hebrew school, cheder, etc.
What better brochah could we get as we start this bright, clean slate of a new year than the instructions Hillel gave to the prospective convert? "Go and learn."
We might just be able to gain a slightly more mature understanding of our (fathomless) Torah.
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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