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Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 27th Tishrei 5777, 29th October 2016
We read and hear about senseless murders: youngsters, 10, 12, 18 years old, get into a spat and instead of ending it with name-calling, a few punches or hair pulling, one takes out a knife and kills the other. Why was he carrying a knife in the first place? And this question becomes more complex. We take 18 year olds and train them to kill, to take lives. Of course, we say, this is necessary because people are trying to kill us. And that’s right. But there’s a problem. Like a boxer who learns to hit hard to knock people out – when tired or a bit drunk he may use his skills on helpless opponents, like a wife or kids. How do we ensure that our soldiers have the mature moral compass to keep their anger and their weapons in check?
These thoughts, and the horrible news we read and see, trace back to the first case of murder in the Bible: Cain and Abel. Unsurprisingly, the many interpretations and commentaries woven around the story can fit different scenarios in today’s world. Here are some of them.
Cain did not mean to kill Abel. He didn’t know how. He didn’t know what murder or killing was. He was an innocent in Eden. When he rose up against Abel it was because of some dispute they had and he did something he shouldn’t have and Abel just died. He didn’t mean what he did.
Today we might read: My sister went out with a man from another community/religion/sect or of a different color/ ethnic background. Remember Tom Jones’ Delilah? I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more. I put the knife in her just as a way to stop her. I didn’t mean to kill her.
Cain and Abel had irreconcilable differences. Cain worked the land and Abel was a shepherd. The classic clash of the homesteader who hoards land and the shepherd who wanders to find food. Some commentators build this up to even greater differences. Tillers of the land, they said, had more of a chance of becoming idol worshippers because they were so dependent on the land/rain/weather. Like the Egyptians, who had the Nile and worshipped it.
We remember the westerns where the cattle ranchers and the homesteaders couldn’t get along. But it’s in real life too. Road rage, where people cannot abide by the driving behavior of others is an example. And I’m sure we all know people for whom the mention of a specific profession – lawyer, tax collector, telephone pitchman, politician, the religious, Reformim – is enough to make their blood boil, sometimes to the point of violence.
Then there are the commentators who attribute the murder to psychological problems such as sibling rivalry. And indeed, that is a worthy explanation. After all, Cain was the firstborn, with the privileges and obligations such a position entailed, and Abel was the me-too tagalong who somehow outshined his brother. Proof: Cain’s offering of the fruits of the field was not as acceptable as Abel’s animal offering was.
Today, brothers and sisters usually don’t kill one another physically. Emotionally, yes.
If we move from explanations of the violence to the punishment, and try to understand it, we can perhaps gain further insight into Cain’s act.
What punishment does a murderer deserve? Death, of course. In a world of absolute and relatively immediate divine punishment, Cain should have died (which actually would have created a problem of propagation of the species, as he had already killed his brother and he was the only other one at the time).
But the punishment is not death but exile. He, like his parents who are expelled from Eden, will have to scrounge around for a living. Is this fair and just? It is, from two points of view. First, it indicates that the murder was not premeditated. It probably was accidental. Manslaughter. Had he lived in Canaan of the Israelites, he could have fled to a city of refuge. Instead, he had to roam the world.
The second reason that it is a just punishment is that Cain is forced to follow in his brother’s footsteps. As a farmer, Cain worked the land. He was now banned from the land. Abel had been a shepherd who wandered from place to place seeking good grazing. Now Cain would be seeking grazing for himself.
Rabbi Ezra Bick tries to find some moral in the story. One is that the competitive urge (Cain vs. Abel) may be natural. We automatically want to be better than the person who is competing for attention, love, rewards. See how frustrated little children become when their brother/sister can do something better than they can, or have something they want. Socialization helps us to sublimate these feelings but they are there.
At the same time, such violent reactions and negative feelings reflect diminished self-image. We become our accomplishments or our accomplishments become us. If we can’t do this or that, we aren’t worth anything.
And this underlies some of the violence we see. You have, I don’t. you’re worth. I’m not. I’ll get what you have and then I’ll be worth what you are. It’s a theme that will appear repeatedly during the book of Bereshit.
So, have we salvaged Cain’s reputation and removed the stigma of a wicked person? Can we say, in the immortal words of Steven Sondheim in Officer Krupke, we’re misunderstood. Deep down inside us there is good?
I don’t know if it’s possible to overcome the disgust that the news engenders. Yesterday I read the headlines of the newspaper and I thought: They want to get me angry. They are selling rage. Yes, there is injustice in the country and the world, but all this ire is simply making me see black. So I decided: one: only five minutes of newspaper a day and only five minutes of TV news a day. Two: I give people space and the benefit of the doubt so that they can’t bait me into their type of violent behavior. Hopefully this will help on the individual level. Of course, where presidential candidates enter the picture, it’s a last-man-standing type of world.