Parashat B’reishit: The Story of Cain

Parashat B’reishit: The Story of Cain

(Torah Study led by Student Rabbi Maayan Lev on October 22, 2022)

 This week’s Torah portion is Bereshit (Genesis), which is best known for the days of creation, and also for the Garden of Eden. But there is another well-known story in this week’s parashah, and that is the story of Cain, who killed his brother Abel. Cain is the first murderer in the Torah, and even though his is a story that some of us know quite well, it still presents lots of fascinating questions.

We’re actually going to take a look at the story bit by bit, and at key moments for some reflections:

Genesis 4:1-5

Now Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of HaShem.” She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In time, Cain brought an offering to HaShem from the fruit of the soil; and Abel brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. HaShem paid heed to Abel and his offering; but to Cain and his offering, HaShem paid no heed. Cain was very distressed, and his face fell.

Is this just blatant favoritism? Why might G!d like Abel’s offering more?

 Since G!d eats neither meat nor fruit, it seems likely that the issue was not the offering itself, but the manner in which the brothers went about in making the offering. One intriguing possibility is that Cain was selfish, and did not bring his best offering. We see from the wording that Abel offered his very best, but it does not say this about Cain. Cain could have done much better. This may explain the following verse:

Genesis 4:6-7

And HaShem said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin lies at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.”

Why might G!d say this to Cain,

despite knowing that Cain will fail to master his sin?

 Though it is impossible to say for sure, I like to think that because G!d acted as a parental figure to Cain, G!d also felt responsible for giving him good advice. Parents may often know that their child will disregard or brush off their advice, but they still often give the advice anyway. The child may find it highly annoying, as Cain may have (telling someone to master their sin can seem condescending, though in the case of HaShem, this may be appropriate). But if G!d did not offer some words of consolation and advice, then as a parental figure, G!d would have failed Cain. When children do something wrong, onlookers often blame the parents. In this case, HaShem could say, “No, I tried. At the end of the day, I did what I could, but the choice was his.”

Ultimately though, Cain did kill Abel. What he said to him just prior to the murder is a mystery, as the Torah leaves it quite vague. But though Cain’s words remain a mystery, his actions are not:

Genesis 4:8-15

Cain said to his brother Abel…and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him. HaShem asked Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he responded, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Then HaShem pressed, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” Cain cried to HaShem, “My punishment is too great to bear! Since You have banished me today from the soil, and I must avoid Your presence and become a restless wanderer on earth—anyone who meets me may kill me!” HaShem committed to him, “I promise, if anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on them sevenfold.” And HaShem put a mark on Cain, so anyone who met him would not kill him.

Depending on how you look at things, this may actually be the first prayer in the Torah. All prayer may in fact descend from this plea for help from Cain. Does this make us feel good? Probably not! But it’s actually quite appropriate that the first prayer came from someone begging for mercy and reprieve. Cain protests that anyone who meets him may kill him, and HaShem makes sure that is not the case. It certainly seems like Cain’s prayer is granted, because he gets what appears to be a happy ending:

Genesis 4:16-17

Cain left the presence of HaShem and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. He then founded a city, and named the city after his son Enoch.

 What does it say that Cain was allowed to remain free, and start a family?

 If Cain was truly evil, rotten to the core, then perhaps he had no regrets about killing his brother Abel. But I believe he did. And I believe G!d knew it. By many accounts, Cain went on to live for several generations (the Torah seems to refer to his death at the hands of a family member, Lemech, in Genesis 4:23, which many rabbinic sources seem to confirm). Despite remaining physically free, and having the fortune to start a family, several generations is quite a long time to live with your guilt. HaShem, ever the parental figure, may have essentially said, “Go think about what you’ve done. Think about it for several generations!”

This may have been the true curse that HaShem inflicted on Cain (or at least the worst of it). When Cain said “גָּדוֹל עֲוֺנִי מִנְּשֹׂ, “My punishment is too great to bear” (in Genesis 4:13), the word “punishment” can also be translated as “guilt.” In essence, Cain may have been asking G!d to simply kill him. But G!d did not. He had to live with that guilt for the rest of his life. The rest of his very, very long life.

The commandment not to kill does not come up until Exodus 20:13, yet we know that in those times, and even today, the punishment for murder is often death. Other times, it is life in prison. But there are many people who take issue with retributive justice.[1] Does it work? Is it right? Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. The Torah doesn’t paint a consistent picture. Perhaps HaShem works on a case-by-case basis.

Though other sections of the Torah are heavy on capital punishment, the story of Cain shows that there is more than one way to deal with a murderer.

Shabbat shalom.


[1] Retributive justice concerns a response to criminal behavior that focuses upon the punishment meted out to lawbreakers. It insists that such response be proportionate and that it is intrinsically good. Because it is focused on the wrongdoing and not the perpetrator, revenge has no place. Because it is proportionate, it takes no pleasure in further suffering. Because it is focused on the case at hand, it stands in contrast to responses that are deterrent (meant to deter, even prevent, future crimes) or rehabilitative (intended to restore the offender).

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