Cain, Abel and the Fairness of God

Cain, Abel and the Fairness of God


by Rabbi Shalom Carmy

Part I: Unfair to Cain?

Cain was a farmer; Abel was a shepherd. Cain offered to God the fruits of his labor; so did Abel. God favored Abel, whereupon Cain was wroth and his face fell. God told Cain that he would do well, his face would be lifted, but that sin crouched enticingly at his door, though it is within Cain's power to rule over it. Cain subsequently kills his brother. He is punished by being uprooted from the land; an exile, he builds the first city.

Why did God turn to Abel's offering, but not to Cain's? One traditional approach (familiar from Midrash and Rashi's commentary) discovers a deficiency in Cain's sacrifice: Abel brought the best of his flock; Cain did not choose the best of his vegetables. Therefore Abel's superiority was deserved, as was the divine rebuke delivered to Cain. If this justification is implied by the Biblical story, it is nevertheless not an obvious reading. The reader might then conclude that God's preference for Abel is not clearly motivated in the Biblical text. What does this say about divine fairness as expressed in this episode?

Among traditional commentators the Netziv (R. Naftali Zvi Berlin, head of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva, died 1892) confronted most explicitly the possibility that Cain did not deserve to have his offering rejected. Cain's reaction to the lack of divine response reflects his bewilderment. "Cain was angry," that is to say, he resented the apparent injustice. "And his face fell," meaning that he came to doubt his own worth. He is confused because he regarded himself as more deserving than Abel. His struggle to make the earth fruitful was more laborious than his brother's cultivation of the sheep, and the aim of his toil was to yield necessary food, rather than the luxurious products provided by Abel. In Cain's opinion, then, his adoption of the simple life made him the more pious brother; it was he who merited God's favor.

According to the Netziv, Cain is wrong in his conviction that only his Spartan way of life is pleasing to God. Life is not always fair in the sense that Cain defines fairness. Both the hard-working farmer's frugal comfort and the shepherd's leisurely lavishness can accommodate a life devoted to the service of God. It all depends on the spiritual orientation of one's efforts at work and the manner in which the individual uses or abuses his or her non-laboring time. This is what God seeks to communicate when He tells Cain that if he does well, his face will be lifted. But Cain remains with his envy and avenges himself on its object. The first murderer, as the Netziv resurrects him from the text, is not a one-dimensional figure, wicked from the womb. He is a human being very much like us, possessed of a keen sense of what is fair and what is not, and quick to feel hurt and humiliation when his vision of himself and his position in relation to others is confounded.

Sympathy for Cain's outlook is not limited to the commentary of the Netziv. For many authors of the Romantic period, fascinated by exile, alienation and evil, men like Coleridge, Byron and Baudelaire, fancied themselves of Cain's party. When they wrote about Cain and about other moral and social outcasts, they frequently drew upon the feeling of injustice and resentment that the Netziv alludes to in his discussion. Perhaps the most remarkable confluence of the Netziv's approach and a non-Jewish work is the Spanish philosopher Unamuno's novel Abel Sanchez, in which the title character, an easy-going, popular, lucky artist, dies at the hands of the work-driven, ever responsible doctor Joquain whom he had always efforlessly outshone.

Devout readers sometimes get the unfortunate impression that, because the study of Torah must take place within the framework of Jewish theological reflection, the insights we gain from non- authoritative sources are irrelevant to our understanding. The process of learning is dialectical. The standard by which we appraise authentic Jewish understanding is supplied by the tradition and by its exemplary practitioners, whose mode of thinking and feeling we seek to make our own. Yet we cannot honestly suppress the sensibility which we bring to the study of Torah from our general culture and experience. The mature self- understanding that is engendered through this process frequently leads to a thoroughgoing critique of the heretical elements in our culture. In some happy cases, as with Unamuno's book, the result is a convergence between the wisdom of the Gentile writer and the teaching of the Torah sage, and the former enriches and deepens the psychological power of the latter.


Part II: Unfair to Abel?

If the rebellious streak in modern man takes Cain's side against that of the demanding God, the sentimentalist, in moments of harshness, bears a grudge against the Almighty for whatever measure of expiation He allows the confronted murderer. The vagabond Cain is cut off from the land he tilled faithfully. His line is eventually excised, though, according to the Rabbis, not before the circle of retribution is closed when Cain himself becomes the victim of homicide by one of his descendants. Yet after the murder, Cain has a future, if not a posterity, while poor Abel has none.

Why did Abel, and his offspring, not merit a significant place in history? The nature of the question, given the lack of information in the text, suggests that it is an unprofitable question, baffling in advance any answer that is not synonymous with omniscience, the kind of question that, in the phraseology of the Rabbis, touches upon "what is above and what is below, what is before and what is after." Part of the tragic reality of sin, and especially the sin of murder, is that we are unable to contemplate what might have been had the murderer's hand been stayed. Among exemplary Torah sages the question has nonetheless been pondered. Let us examine a Talmudic statement as it was interpreted by two of the greatest readers of Aggadic literature:

God's accusation of Cain refers to the "earth that opened its mouth to accept the blood of your brother from your hand." The Rabbis noted the element of personification in the earth's "opening its mouth," and comment that the earth did not open its mouth again. Subsequently the Talmud qualifies this statement: the earth, on other occasions, opened its mouth for bad (in swallowing Korah and his sect), but never for good.

The discussion just cited suggests that the earth, by receiving the blood, assisted Cain in a cover-up of his brother's murder, as it were. Describing this as "opening its mouth for the good" implies that the cover-up is, in some way, justifiable. That such action by the earth is precluded in the future indicates that it is not a suitable prototype.

R. Shmuel Edels (=Maharsha, 16th century Poland) interprets the text in the light of a well-known Midrash about the quarrel between Cain and Abel. According to this scenario, the brothers divided the world, Cain taking the land and Abel the livestock. Not unpredictably, Cain then sought to evict his brother and his possessions, arguing that the land upon which they stood was, after all, his. Insofar as Cain had devoted himself to possession of the land, the personified earth of the story felt beholden to Cain and conspired to hide his guilt. The earth, on this reading, has "acted" in an understandable manner, notwithstanding that it is punished for protecting the murderer.

Maharsha's approach addresses the earth's cooperation with Cain as a situation in which a particular obligation (the earth's "debt" to Cain) mitigates the sin of obliterating the victim's blood. R. Judah Lowe of Prague (16th century Prague) pursues a more ambitious course. In addition to Maharsha's explanation he outlines two themes which confront the mystery regarding the unfulfilled destiny of Abel. The first point is that in an unpopulated world the presence of even one murder threatens the metaphysical viability of the entire universe. Pure justice, in other words, would destroy the world. It was therefore imperative for the murder to be rendered invisible, as it were, and the earth, so to speak, is enlisted for the necessary end of preserving the world.

Maharal's second idea posits that God had never intended Abel to become a foundation of the human race. The very meaning of his name-- Abel=Hevel=vapor, indicates his transience on the stage of history. Abel did not rise to the level of "actuality." Unfair as it might seem, he was dispensable for the ultimate destiny of the world. The earth's "action" is in line with Abel's metaphysical insignificance when it undertakes to efface the traces of his historical presence.

The approaches we have just considered, inspired as they are by the effort to penetrate the enigmatic formulation of the Talmudic discussion, reflect different strands in the thought of the commentators: the sense of divided loyalty for Maharsha; the urgency with which the vividness of a pervasive crimes must me repressed; the uncanny, and somewhat deterministic recognition that certain elements in creation, for no moral fault of their own, do not possess the actuality that confers posterity. The mystery is not so much resolved as redefined. Reconciliation is beyond the resources of our fallen world.

Rabbi Shalom Carmy is Consulting Editor of Tradition. He recently edited Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations (Jason Aronson, 1996)

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