Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on 24th Tishrei 5775, 18th October 2015
As we return to the book of Bereshit after a hiatus of about 9 months during which we completed the four other books, we again enter a world where nothing of what we know today exists. No computers, no buildings, no societies, no animals, no countries, no separate heaven and earth and no day and night. Chaos. Random turmoil. Until order is progressively imposed with the creation of light, and of earth and water, of the sun and moon and stars and of flora and fauna and man.
But because each creation and story is like the day in a young child’s life, filled with newness and uncertainty, we find ourselves engulfed in a world that teeters with insecurity. There are rules, but all the creations are too young to know what they are. And so, before long, we are exposed to the most important of the rules – the sanctity of life, and the unbearable ease with which it can be obliterated. Cain and Abel.
Basically, Cain and Abel foreshadow what we will encounter during the rest of the book of Genesis – jealousy and dissension. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with dissension. People disagree, which creates thesis, antithesis and hopefully synthesis – a new reality can be created, unless one party takes dissension to its extreme and eradicates his opponent, as Cain did to Abel.
Turmoil and dissension are recurring themes in Bereshit. According to Rabbi Ari Kahn, the Midrash goes so far as to say that it begins in the first chapter, with the separation of the waters above from the waters below on the second day – separating two things that are actually the same.
Building on this clue, we can see that Cain and Abel dissent because they are actually the same, but different. They are both humans, the sons of Adam and Eve. But the Torah gives us an explanation for Cain’s name – Eve says, I have acquired a man from God. But no explanation is given for Abel’s name – Hevel in Hebrew, which means nothingness. Does this reflect Adam and Eve’s attitude towards their second born? We had the child experience, this is just another been there done that. If so, Cain should have been the leader, the one who is looked up to. But he wasn’t. Hevel, Abel, was the one who tended sheep and cattle, and his sacrifice was more acceptable to God than was Cain’s. Child number two outdid child number one. Causing jealousy, and an extreme response. Murder.
And this is the pattern throughout. Avraham is not the firstborn but the second born. Isaac as well. And Yaacov as well. Yosef is even further down the line, the next to youngest in a family of 12 boys.
So what explains this enmity? It is, of course, sparked in part by jealousy. Who wants his younger brother, to outshine him and hog the spotlight?
In some cases, we’d have to say that the firstborn has it tougher. Yes, he has more attention from his parents but on the other hand his parents have no experience in dealing with children. They are either overly protective or not protective enough. They coddle or push or punish. Or all three. They expend greater effort in shaping the child in their own image because there are two parents available to deal with one child.
When the second child comes, they have to split their attention. The older child suddenly finds himself second banana to the upstart little pisher who has just come into the family (send him back!!!). Meanwhile, the parents have learned from their mistakes – or in other cases they overcompensate and make the opposite mistakes: too little attention or too much attention. In addition, the first child has staked out his territory in terms of personality and relationships, very often trying to please and propitiate his parents. The second child must adopt different territory, to differentiate himself from his brother. This is often reflected in more aggressive and more creative-thinking types of children. I could keep this penny psychology analysis going forever.
This is the pattern we see in Bereshit. The second child stands out, the first child is unhappy and for most of the years of their lives, the two do not get along. Where does the change come in the Torah and in everyday life? When brothers appreciate the unique qualities of their siblings and accept them as different but equal to them. Where do we find this in the Torah? In Shmot, Exodus, with Moshe (the baby) and Aaron (the firstborn). Moshe the leader shines in his righteousness and his adherence to the truth, the words of God, while Aaron is brilliant in his mercy and his efforts to bring peace among people. We see time and again that the two brothers appreciate each other, recognize each other’s capabilities and rejoice in the success of each other’s endeavors. A far cry from Cain and Abel.
This is how our Torah and many endeavors start, working from chaos to order. This is how we operate, developing and learning as we progress. Fortunately, we do not have to return to ground zero each year as we read about Tohu vaVohu (chaos and disarray). But each year we need that boost to get ourselves moving, out of the lethargy created by too much eating of good food on the holidays and too much sitting around, even if it is in shul, and days that are shortening by leaps and bounds each week.
Chaos surrounds us in abundance, politically and economically on a national or international level, and emotionally and personally as well, in some cases. Good raw material for creating order and goodness in our lives.
It’s time to get working, creating, together, and to build a new year that we can be proud of in another twelve months.