Cain and Able

                       FOUR VIEWS OF CAIN AND ABEL (Geneses 4:1-18)               By Rabbi Allen S. Maller

What lessons should be derived from this narrative? There are four traditional Jewish methods of glossing scripture. Each one provides us with different insights and different lessons. The p’shaht/plain text meaning concerns crime, punishment and repentance. The derash/didactic meaning concerns the need to deal with rejection. The remez/metaphor meaning concerns the two impulses of human nature. The sod/hidden depth meaning concerns the nature of religion. Read the whole narrative and derive as many spiritual lessons as you can from it on your own. Then read it again and again after you have read each of the following paragraphs.

The p’shaht/plain text lessons: Cain murders Able due to jealousy, so envy and jealously are evil. We are our brother’s keeper. God exiles Cain to give him an opportunity to repent and live a more productive life. Cain establishes a town named after his son. Thus he repents and builds for the future.

The derash/didactic lessons: We are not told why God favored Able and not Cain. It isn’t important because throughout life we will have to deal with failure and rejection. Often we succeed in love, in business, in sports, etc. and sometimes we fail or are rejected. Cain deals with rejection by scapegoating and killing his rival. Cain takes his rejection as a personal insult. Cain should try another offering, or another time, or another way. He doesn’t. He blames Able because God didn’t favor Cain’s offering. He can’t stand losing.

The remez/metaphor lessons: 4:7 is the key. Sin crouches at the doorway. We always have a choice. Rivalry and competition can lead to excelling or to destroying. The “evil” impulse (yetzer) isn’t inherently evil, but if untamed by a moral code (Torah) it easily leads us to do evil. Sex with love and marriage is good. Sex without love and marriage isn’t good. Extramarital sex or forced sex is evil. The biology is simply the Yetzer or the yetzer haRah (the evil/wild impulse). The yetzer HaTov (the good/tamed impulse) is our moral learned response that makes us into creatures in the Image of God. God sometimes doesn’t favor us in order to challenge us to grow stronger in taming our wild infantile urges. Our narrative is all about the dual nature of human nature.

The sod/hidden depth: God does not ask Cain or Able to worship or to bring an offering. Able does it on his own and seems to prosper, so Cain decides to do it too. Religions are human responses to our awareness of the Divine but our particular forms of worship are not as important as our responses to other human beings. To be jealous of another person’s religious worship is a great sin that leads to even worse sins. The only way religions should compete is through seeing which religion produces the highest percentage of people who in their everyday life are kind, responsible, loving, and charitable to all human beings. All religions can help people secure God’s favor as long as people live up to the best teachings of their own religion. No religion guarantees success to those who use God as a weapon. To read a holy text in such a way as to support evil acts on others is to follow the religion of Cain instead of Able.


Yom Kippur tells the life and death importance of making the right choices. “I HAVE PUT BEFORE YOU LIFE AND DEATH, BLESSING AND CURSE: SO CHOOSE LIFE!” (Deuteronomy 30:19) and Genesis tells us how to make the right choice. “IF YOU DO RIGHT YOU WILL BE UPLIFTED, IF YOU DO NOT DO RIGHT, SIN CROUCHES AT THE OPENING, ITS PASSION IS FOR YOU BUT YOU CAN CONTROL IT’ (Genesis 4:7)

UPLIFTED: Originally there was no promise of reward in this life or in the afterlife. Uplifted means you feel an intrinsic inner pride and self-worth for doing good. The reward of doing a Mitsvah is the opportunity to do more Mitsvot. (Avot 4:2)

CROUCHES: All humans are animals. We inherit genetic inclinations/impulses that can influence us to do evil. They must be tamed, controlled, disciplined and directed by our morally educated will to do good. Whenever we do wrong an opportunity/opening is created that tempts us to do more wrong. Evil is also learned behavior. (Avot 4:2)

PASSION: Evil is attractive. In the short run it is rewarding and addictive. We become accustomed to doing evil and think it is natural and normal. Greed, selfishness, jealousy, stubbornness, deceit, bigotry, hatred and violence are rationalized and even commended.

CONTROL: The Rabbis called the untamed animal impulses that lead us to do wrong: the Yetzer. The Yetzer isn’t intrinsically evil, but if it is not controlled by a conscious ethical will it easily leads us to do evil. Ambition, competitiveness, display, greed and status seeking can lead to hard work, success and social/economic accomplishment. It can also lead to exploitation, manipulation and oppression. Sexual desire can lead to loving relationships, tenderness and children. It can also lead to adultery, rape and incest. As Rabbi Samuel bar Nakhman said, “The words ‘behold it was good’ refer to the good Yetzer and the words ‘it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31) refer to the bad Yetzer. But how can the bad Yetzer be called ‘very good ’? Because scripture teaches that were it not for the bad Yetzer a man would not build a big house, take a wife, beget children, or engage in business.” The bad Yetzer is only bad when it is uncontrolled, untamed and wild.

IT: Most people are driven by competitiveness and rivalry to prove themselves and seek success. As Rabbi Judah said, “The world is driven by three things: rivalry, lust, and compassion.” Rabbi Judah acknowledges that our animal heritage also provides us with impulses for empathy, compassion, co-operation, love and loyalty. However, our Sages believed that without conscious moral training these impulses could not control the powerful impulses that derive from rivalry and lust. Thus Torah and Mitsvot are needed to tame/train a human personality to become a Mentch. Even then it is always a struggle.

The great sage Abbaye, seeing others resist a temptation he couldn’t, was told “The greater the man, the greater the Yetzer.” Females do not need as many Mitsvot as males because a large part of their good Yetzer derives from generations of mothering. This is why the Talmud says woman have more intuitive insight than men. Niddah 45

Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish taught that ‘challenge’ was the fundamental force in life. The challenge of temptation-Satan; the challenge of selfish or aggressive impulses-Yetzer; and the challenge of death-despair are all variations of God’s ‘challenge’ to humanity stated concisely in our verse and in the Mitsvah “Choose life!”


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