What makes people sin? How do they avoid it? Does God punish sinners in this world? Does God reward the righteous in this world?
This week’s Torah portion (B’reishit) – the first in the Torah – includes a story that introduces some of Judaism’s central moral questions. The story of Cain and Abel sets the stage for all the moral deliberations to come in the Torah’s pages. Fittingly, the story does not give many answers, but it does offer delicious ambiguities.
Cain and Abel were the first brothers. Cain grew crops and Abel kept flocks. Each gave God the fruit of his labors as an offering. Cain brought the grain he grew and Abel brought the prize of his herd. For some reason, though, God liked Abel’s offering better. Cain was devastated.
The story immediately forces us to deal with an undisguised bitter truth – life is unfair. Sometimes God shines on one person and not on another for no apparent reason. The first crime comes about as a result of Cain’s inability to deal with this truth.
God saw Cain’s distress and pondered some moral philosophy with him. God asked Cain (I’m paraphrasing Genesis 4:6-7), “Isn’t it true that there is uplift for doing good? And isn’t it true that if you don’t do what is good, you invite disaster upon yourself? Buck up, Cain. If you don’t master your feelings, your feelings will be masters over you!”
Cain did not take the hint. In what we can only imagine to have been a fit of jealousy, Cain murdered his brother Abel. God saw and told Cain the consequences. He would no longer be able to raise food from the ground. He would be cursed for spilling his brother’s blood on the earth.
At this point in the story, we can wonder what the meaning behind all this might be. The story seems to say that when we deal with disappointment, frustration, injustice and deprivation in life, we have a choice. We can either make the best of it and strive to do what is right, despite life’s capricious hardships, or we can let our emotions get the better of us and follow the impulse toward spite, revenge, jealousy, brooding, self-isolation, and doing harm to others. If we follow that course, the story says, we will just end up hurting ourselves. We will remove ourselves from the things that ought to sustain us. We will be cursed.
The best thing to do, then, is to be on guard for those self-destructive impulses. We all experience such feelings at some point in our lives – whether in response to bad luck or to other people’s bad behavior – but what separates the good from the wicked is the ability to recognize and rein in these tendencies. The failure to do so, the story suggests, is the essence of sin. Sin is the weakness of the soul in dealing with not getting what we want.
After receiving his punishment, Cain cried out to God, and his words are mysterious and revealing. In Hebrew, he says, “gadol avoni minso” (Genesis 4:13). Many translations render this as, “My punishment is too great to bear,” and that makes sense. Cain felt self-pity for being driven from the land that had been his life’s work. He complained that he would be a wanderer over the earth and that, as a murderer, anyone who met him would be justified in killing him. He couldn’t bear to live that way.
But the Hebrew word avoni is ambiguous. It can mean “my punishment,” but it can also mean “my sin.” Cain could have meant, “My sin is too great to bear” – as in, “I can’t stand to even think about what I have done.” Cain, the first murderer, could also have been the first person to be tormented by guilt.
There is yet another possibility. The word minso literally means “from bearing” – but whose “bearing” are we talking about? Cain’s or God’s? Cain might have confessed that his sin was too great for God to bear – that is, too great for God to forgive. Cain might have believed that murdering his brother was beyond the possibility of atonement. He even says to God in the next verse, “From your face I must hide” (Genesis 4:14). Cain might have believed that, through his actions, he had lost God.
All of these multiple meanings can be seen as forming a complex picture of the nature of sin. When we are weak and give in to our impulse to strike out at others, or to shut down within, we can experience a range of emotions that drag us even further down. We might indulge in self-pity and feel sorry for ourselves and our miserable plight. We might anguish in self-loathing for the ugly way we have behaved. We might despair and believe that we have cut ourselves off from forgiveness, and give up on being good. The whole range of responses is suggested by the ambiguity of three words: “gadol avoni minso.”
Or, we can accept a different response. We can say – as God suggested to Cain before the murder – that we can be the master of our feelings, they need not master us. We can take the warning that negative thoughts of self-pity, self-accusation and despair only drive us deeper down the hole. We can, instead, do what is right, and find uplift.
The story of Cain and Abel is part of the Hebrew Bible’s introduction to the whole topic of sin and punishment. It teaches us that the real reward of doing good is the affirmation of all that is meaningful in life. Doing good is mastery of the self and it is the fulfillment of what ultimately gives pleasure and success in life.
The story teaches that the real punishment for sin is not thunderbolts from heaven – it is the loss of self. When we do what is wrong, we punish ourselves with self-recrimination, self-loathing, self-pity and fear.
We’ve had our warning. We can be mastered, or we can be the masters of our lives.
RABBI JEFFREY GOLDWASSER is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Cranston. He is the author of the blog “Reb Jeff,” from which this d’var Torah is adapted.