Table For Five: Bereshit
Weekly Parsha: One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist
The Lord turned to Abel and to his offering. But to Cain and to his offering He did not turn. — Genesis 4:4
Dean of Humanities, Ono Academic College
Does life have to be a zero-sum game? It is hard to understand why God could not accept two different types of offerings — both Cain’s “from the fruit of the soil” and Abel’s “choicest of the firstlings of his flock.” Various commentators, uncomfortable with God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice at the expense of Cain’s, have wrestled with this issue, and have exaggerated the disparity between the two offerings as they tried to justify God’s behavior. On the face of it, the text does not suggest any animosity between the brothers with their different ways of life, and each brother seems to offer sincere gratitude to God in his own way. Why, in the face of difference, does God have to reject one?
Unfortunately, this is only the first of aggrieved pairs that permeate Genesis. Two siblings cannot be equally loved and accepted. The love of one is at the expense of the rejection of the other: Isaac and Ishmael; Esau and Jacob; Rachel and Leah; the sons of Rachel (Joseph and Benjamin) and the sons of the other wives. Esau explicitly resists this world-view, declaiming to his father (Genesis 27:38), “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!”—but in response, his father can only weep, making him subservient to his younger brother.
Must all pairs be tragic? Is life really a zero-sum game? I cannot fathom why the God of Genesis patterns this tragic world of relationships, where being loved means someone else is rejected.
Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
We all know the basic facts from the Torah: Cain’s offering was from the poorest of his produce while Abel’s was the choicest of his flock. God embraces Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. The trouble begins with, and our “teachable moment” is, Cain’s reaction when he sees Abel’s offering accepted by God while his is rejected. This is the moment that led to the first homicide.
The Torah is not a history book. Rather it is an instruction for living couched in a narrative that we mere mortals can appreciate. Seen in this light, before pointing fingers at Cain’s reaction, perhaps it is more meaningful to ponder a question that may serve as a lifetime of instruction for us, i.e., how do we conduct ourselves when we are dissatisfied with our situation?
When we feel rejected, rather than find fault with our own behavior, it is far easier to shift the blame to someone else. In the case at hand, Cain blamed his brother for supposedly copying his idea of making an offering to God, and murder followed.
It takes courage to acknowledge that more often than not, the person we need to face is the reflection in the mirror. As long as we seek to blame others for our own frustrations, we will never change. That is a true tragedy since the only person we can ever change is ourselves.
Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Executive Director, Aish LA
Winston Churchill once said, “Success has been defined as the ability to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” Torah teaches that man is fallible and God gave us the gift of renewal to become even greater than before the fall from grace.
Cain missed the opportunity of rectifying his rejected offering and instead, in a jealous rage, murdered Abel. The Ramban, the great 14th-century commentator, writes if Cain had realized his mistake with his mediocre gift to God, and repented, he would have added an exaltedness even beyond that of Abel. If only Cain would have repented! God was waiting. On the flipside, if Cain didn’t remedy his mistake, it would eventually destroy him.
A mistake that motivates us to make a noticeable improvement in our behavior and arouses us to doing even more mitzvot is beyond laudatory. We have an inborn drive to perfect ourselves by overcoming failure through learning from our past, becoming even greater because of it.
Life is a series of second chances. While we think it’s natural to give up because we feel all is lost and not retrievable, it’s not what being human is about. We were programmed to make the big comeback, to correct our actions, to purify ourselves. God will answer in kind, and we will become the magnificent creation we were destined to be.
Aren’t those the stories we read to our children and the movies and books we entertain ourselves with? Our lives are waiting to be reclaimed.
Rabbi Susan Nanus
Wilshire Boulevard Temple
In a society where people are under so much pressure to perform and fulfill unreasonably high expectations — and depression, anxiety and mental illness are on the rise among high school and college students — the story of Cain and Abel has profound resonance. Whether it’s getting into the “right school,” being hired for the “right job,” or in Cain’s case, offering the “right sacrifice,” rejection has become a cruel and crushing evaluation of a person’s total self-worth.
The results are disastrous, as the Torah so brilliantly presents. For whatever reason, Cain’s offering is not satisfactory, but instead of accepting God’s decision and reflecting on what went wrong, Cain immediately becomes upset and depressed. God reminds Cain that everything is fixable and that anger and resentment will only make things worse, but if stature and success become our dominant values, we find our lives unbearable when we don’t achieve them. As with Cain, we can become so filled with rage and jealousy that we pick up a gun, a knife or a rock and strike out at others … or sometimes ourselves.
We all have the potential to become Cain — overwhelmed by insecurity, jealousy, competition and even deep desires for revenge. In the very first parshah, the Torah reveals these seething emotions. The Torah’s answer is a value system where justice and compassion are the currency of wealth; charity and kindness are the symbols of stature; and loving our fellow human and remembering the stranger are the highest signs of success.
Was Cain’s sacrifice rejected because he didn’t offer his very best to God? Abel offered his fattest sheep, whereas Cain offered produce that was average. However, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneer-son, points out that Abel didn’t offer his very best either. He could have offered a cow, which is more valuable than a sheep. And according to one opinion, the produce Cain offered was flaxseed, a very valuable crop.
Cain chose his very best species, and didn’t worry about the quality of the specimen. Abel didn’t choose his best species, but made sure the specimen was the very best. Each approach seems reasonable, and there was no way to know which was the right way to do it.
God accepted Abel’s offering, and rejected Cain’s, indicating that He would rather receive the best of a lesser species, than a lesser sample of the best species. Cain could have received the message and resolved to do it differently next time. He didn’t have to take it personally. Unfortunately, Cain let his emotions guide him. It was easier to blame Abel than to take responsibility for his own mistake. Cain’s sin wasn’t giving an inferior sacrifice; it was allowing his hurt feelings to dictate his behavior.
If Cain had simply brought his next offering the way God wanted it, I suspect God would have been even more pleased with his sacrifice than with Abel’s, because it would have demonstrated humility and growth. Instead, Cain gave in to rage, with tragic results.
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