‘CAIN SLAYING ABEL’ (c. 1608) by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens..
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This Shabbat we begin a new cycle of Torah reading. We return to look at the beginning of the Torah and the beginning of humanity.
There are many existential questions in the parasha of Breishit: Why does man need to be part of a couple? Why does man sin? Why does he get into trouble? Why does he need rest? Why does he create civilization and culture? What motivates man to do what he does? What actions might bring God to “regret” creating man?
One of the first stories in the Torah is the shocking story of a younger brother being murdered by his older brother. They were both sons of Adam and Eve – Cain and Abel. They got into a complicated situation: they both brought a sacrifice before God. God accepted that of the younger brother, Abel, but rejected that of the older brother, Cain. How does a man know if God accepted his sacrifice? We can assume in several ways, but it is does not matter to the story or what it is slated to teach us. In this situation, Cain becomes jealous and does something unspeakably terrible: “…and it came to pass when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him” (Genesis 4:8).
Indeed, this terrible story should be at the beginning of the Torah. If the Torah shows us the path to repair and progress, it must place this warning at its beginning. We must know how a person is capable of such deterioration; we must recognize the moral abyss present at the start of humanity.
Before the murder, the Torah tells of Cain’s reaction after God did not accept his sacrifice. He was angry and upset. He was angry and then sunk into deep sadness. Immediately afterwards, God spoke to him and gave him a message to grasp that had Cain adopted it, he would not have reached the point of murdering his brother. This is what God said to Cain: “And the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? Is it not so that if you improve, it will be forgiven you? If you do not improve, however, at the entrance, sin is lying, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it’” (ibid. 6-7).
If you will be a good person – God teaches Cain – you will overcome, you will raise your spiritual and moral stature. But if you do not improve your ways, you must face the facts: sin will lurk around every corner. At every opportunity and every turn, you will find sin beckoning to you. Temptation is great, the gain is obvious but the loss is hidden. However, you will control this! You have the power, the amazing ability to withstand temptation. It is in your control to decide if you give into it or overcome it.
These concepts are among the foundations of Jewish faith. A person has the free will to choose between good and evil. There is no person for whom fate determined in advance whether he would be righteous or evil, moral or wrong. Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, who lived in Spain and Egypt in the 12th century, among the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time) wrote about this concept: “This principle is a fundamental concept and a pillar [on which rests the totality] of the Torah and mitzvot… Any one of the deeds of men that a person desires to do, he may – whether good or evil… From this, we can infer that the Creator does not compel or decree that people should do either good or bad.
Rather, everything is left to their [own choice]. (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva, Chapter 5) When God bequeathed to man the ability to make free choices, He took a great risk. Man could choose evil. Man could even deny the existence of free choice and claim he was forced to do what he did. Why, then, was man given free will? Some religious philosophies would find this groundless, but Judaism believes that God does not want obedient robots, but rather partners in the journey – opinionated, active partners with consciousness and choice. The ability to choose is what gives man his worth, significance to his life, and despite the risk that man might choose evil, God believes that at the end of the process, man will find his path to goodness and to doing the right thing.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.