In the Beginning — Kayin v’Hevel
A few weeks ago, a student stopped me in the Beit Medrash and asked a question that had been troubling her. When reviewing Parshat Breishit (yes, thanks to Rav Milston’s bekiut class there are those who don’t wait for parshat hashavua) she had reached the story of Kayin and Hevel and was having difficulty understanding exactly why Hashem had refused to accept Kayin’s offering. Had not his intentions been noble? Even if we were to suggest that there was something lacking in his sacrifice, would it not have been more effective to “reach out” to him by accepting the sacrifice, and to then show Kayin how to improve? In fact, variations of this question have troubled meforshim throughout the ages. In this week’s shiur we will examine this question more closely.
We are familiar with the basic outline of the story as it is related in Breishit (4:1-16). In the first half of the story (1-6) we learn that after having been exiled from Gan Eden, Adam and Chava build a family with the birth of two sons, Kayin and Hevel. Kayin chooses to be a farmer while Hevel turns his attention to livestock. Each brings an offering to Hashem. When Hashem accepts Hevel’s offering while rejecting Kayin’s, Kayin becomes despondent. In passuk 7 Hashem offers words of rebuke and/or encouragement to Kayin, but to no avail, as the subsequent passukim (8-16) attest.
We are generally familiar with Rashi’s approach to our question. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, suggests that Kayin offered inferior quality produce in his offering. Hevel, on the other hand, offers superior quality in his sacrifice, as attested to by the passuk (4) “m’bechorot tzono”- the first born of his sheep and “m’chelbeihen” – and their fat. As the passuk (3) describing Kayin’s offering contains no descriptions of the quality of the sacrifice the Midrash surmises that Kayin’s choice of produce was of an inferior quality. Nechama Leibovitch suggests further proof for this thesis from the fact that the Hevel brought his offering “m’tzono”, from his sheep. In contrast, we see no possessive used when describing Kayin’s offering. Hevel invests of himself in his sacrifice, while for Kayin the offering is impersonal in nature, without any innate connection between the supplicant and his master.
If we accept the approach suggested by Rashi, then we must return to our original question and ask ourselves why the offering of inferior grade produce should elicit such a severe reaction from Hashem. We can strengthen the question by pointing out that Kayin was the first person to bring any offering to Gd. From the passuk (4) it appears that Hevel was merely mimicking Kayin (V’Hevel havi gam hu” And Hevel also brought…) when he brought his offering. Surely it would not have been unreasonable to have given Kayin the benefit of the doubt and to have accepted his offering.
If we follow Rashi’s approach we must answer this question on two levels. Firstly, we must accept, as Kayin needed to accept, that when it comes to Avodat Hashem there is no second best. If it is appropriate to serve Gd, to recognize His place in our lives and our dependence on Him and our connection to Him, then our Avodat Hashem must reflect recognition of that relationship. This is the gist of the approach that Malbim suggests when explaining Hashem’s response to Kayin’s anger over having his offering rejected. Gd tells Kayin that it is not the sacrifice that is important, but the intentions of he who brings the offering. If one is devoted to Hashem and to the lifestyle that He demands, then an offering is accepted. If on the other hand he disdains that lifestyle, then the offering he gives makes a mockery of the Avoda that is being offered. This lack of seriousness was reflected in the lack of care and importance that Kayin ascribed to his offering. Hevel, on the other hand recognized this point as was reflected in the quality of the offering that he made.
At this point, however, all is not lost for Kayin. Hashem offers him both a lesson and a choice of how to proceed. Seforno (passuk 6) emphasizes the point that any failure that we confront is merely an opportunity for growth and improvement. This is precisely what Hashem wishes for Kayin to understand. The point is not to dwell on the past. Rather we should invest our energies on the future. All Kayin needs to do is to recognize that by building on his initial impulse to recognize Gd he can move forward. By focusing on where he failed, and by addressing that failure, Kayin has the opportunity not only to match his brother’s relationship with Gd, but to surpass it. Unfortunately, he proves incapable of making this leap, with the tragic results that are then chronicled by the Torah.
Having said all this, we are still left with the nagging sense that the harshness of Gd’s rejection does not fit the crime of Kayin’s lack of dedication. While surely this rejection would have been richly deserved had it been in response to an active “dissing” of Gd and of the devotion that should be shown Him, it is difficult to read such a lack of respect into Kayin’s actions. If this is correct, then we must return to our original question. Why did Hashem react so negatively to Kayin’s offering?
In answer to this question we must posit that Kayin’s sin runs deeper than his faulty sacrifice and that the sacrifice itself only reflects on that shortcoming. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch contrasts the different occupations of Kayin and Hevel and in doing so suggests an approach which might help answer our question. (For a contrasting approach to the difference in livelihood between the two brothers, see the Netziv on our parsha.)
Rav Hirsch suggests that by choosing to be a farmer, Kayin has chosen for himself a livelihood which on the one hand ties man to the ground but on the other makes him little more than a slave to that land. This in and of itself has a coarsening affect on the farmer’s personality. Rarely does a farmer have time for anything but his fields. Contemplation of his place in the world and the time and energy to attempt to rise above his surroundings are generally unattainable luxuries. Not only that, but the farmer’s natural dependence on the forces of nature almost inevitably led him (at least in the ancient world) to begin to worship those forces. In fact, claims Rav Hirsch, it was amongst farmers that idol worship first developed. On the other hand, a successful harvest will almost always create a sense of self worth and independence as opposed to a sense of gratitude for what was given him. Neither of these phenomena are particular helpful in recognizing Hashem in the world.
In contrast to this, a shepherd deals with living creatures, and his role is one of caring and nurturing rather than creating. A shepherd quickly learns how fragile life is and how insignificant his own efforts in nurturing life can be. It teaches him humility on the one hand, and care and compassion on the other. And finally it allows him time for contemplation and self evaluation. It is no coincidence, says Rav Hirsch that amongst Judaism’s forefathers, from the Avot, through Moshe Rabbenu and on to David HaMelech, that shepherding was the occupation of choice. It is for this reason that the Torah creates so many mitzvoth, terumot and maaserot, shimita and yovel, to regulate agriculture.
According to this approach, we can suggest that Kayin, in his choice of agriculture, has embarked on career path that is fraught with peril. By choosing such a path, he has already shown a disregard for the spiritual. His offering only serves to stress how this disregard has begun to gnaw at his soul. In rejecting his offering, Hashem both rebukes Kayin for his choices, as well as points the way towards a better path. With proper awareness of the pitfalls of his livelihood, a farmer can truly become an Oved Hashem. Tragically, rather than embracing that path, Kayin chooses to turn his angst and anger toward his brother, thereby becoming the first murderer in human history.
(For a beautiful exposition on how the entire parsha points toward this explanation, Rav Elchanan Samet’s opening essay in Iyunim b”Parshat HaShavua, First Series is an absolute must read. Particularly interesting are his quotations from Rav Hillel Zeitlin, Hashem Yikom Damo, whose comments reflect his socialist/communist leanings.)
Shabbat Shalom – Rav Susman