Parshat Bereshit: The Puzzle of Cain and Abel

Rabbi Ari J Goldstein
Rabbi Ari J Goldstein (Courtesy of Rabbi Ari J Goldstein)

By Rabbi Ari J Goldstein

Parshat Bereshit

The story of Cain and Abel is surprisingly terse considering how famous it is. In fact, because it is so lacking in detail, it has sparked fanciful speculation for generations. Abel was a shepherd, and Cain was a farmer. And both brought offerings to God. (Gen 4:2-4)

Why was Abel mentioned first even though Cain was older? We don’t know for sure. The puzzle continues as the Torah shares that Abel brought the “choicest of his flock” while Cain’s offering was merely “the fruit of the soil.” (Gen 4:3-4) Was this a deliberate distinction to show that Abel cared more about the quality of his offering? One might think that God would have favored Cain’s offering of the fruit of the soil since the land had been cursed in the preceding story of Adam and Eve. In other words, the offering would likely have been as a result of considerable hard labor. Of course we all know that “God paid heed to Abel and his offering but not to Cain and his offering.” (Gen 4:4-5)

I am curious as to how Cain knew that God paid no heed to Cain’s offering. The Torah tells us, the readers, about God’s choice, but Cain is never told. Still, we learn that Cain was distressed and his “face fell.” I think that means that he became depressed. So God says to Cain, “Why are you distressed and why has your face fallen? Surely you know that if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin crouches at your door. Its urge is towards you yet you can be its master.” (Gen 4:6-7)

God is clear with Cain. There is no reason to be upset. Sacrifices are not important. Doing what is right brings merit and satisfaction. (Does this remind anyone of the Haftarah on Yom Kippur?)

“Cain then said to his brother … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel, and killed him. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ And he answered, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’”(Gen 4:8-9)

Sad, because in the very verse following the one in which God tells Cain to make good choices, Cain does the exact opposite. He makes a terrible choice and kills his brother. In our modern world, the punishment for murder is life in prison or stricter. In Cain’s day, the punishment by God the ultimate judge was considerably more lenient. Cain was forced to be a wanderer, albeit a protected wanderer. (Gen. 4:12-15) And then we learn that he got married, had children and founded a city. (Gen. 4:17)

This does not seem like such a harsh punishment. In fact, it doesn’t seem like much of a punishment at all. Perhaps this final puzzle piece helps us understand the true meaning of the story. Cain, in his state of mind, refused to follow God’s advice. However, he could not have possibly understood the consequences of the act of killing. Until that point, no one had ever died before. God’s punishment to Cain was for lying.

The central theme of the story of Cain and Abel is that of free will and choice. Our free will demands that choices be made available.

Rabbi Ari Goldstein has served as the rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold for 20 years. He is also a member of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.

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