Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bereshit 5766/ October 29, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




Lasting Lessons from the First Family


 Prof. Moshe Kaveh


President, Bar-Ilan University


Parashat Bereshit presents the story of Creation, which culminates in the making of Man, the pinnacle of all things created.  “This is the record of Adam’s line” (Gen. 5:1) can also be understood as “This is the record of all mankind” (zeh sefer toledot ha-adam), by which Scripture means that the stories of the Torah and the accounts of its heroes are a brief history (toledot) of mankind, for they bridge past and future by presenting universal lessons of eternal significance.   The Bible has always been known for its great educational impact, both for the individual and for society as a whole, as Zvi Adar states in his classic work, Educational Values of the Bible:   “We, who so often complain of the paucity of our literature as a didactic force, should never forget that in the Bible we have one of the finest works of didactic literature.” [1]

A.  Educational messages learned from the story of Adam and Eve

In Parashat Bereshit, Adam, the first man, is presented as the center of the universe created by G-d.  Man’s unique virtue, in contrast to the animals, is encapsulated in the words, “in our image, after our likeness” (1:26).   Essentially, man’s dominion on Earth parallels G-d’s dominion in Heaven.  His mate, who eventually is given the name Eve, is formed from his rib and destined to serve as “a fitting helper for him” (2:18).  Two commands are given the human race in order to fulfill their role:  one has to do with the nature of man as a living being; like the animals, he is commanded to “be fertile and increase, fill the earth” (1:28).   The second stems from the spirit of G-d with which he is imbued:  “and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all living things that creep on earth” (ibid.).

Further on in the reading it says:  “The Lord G-d planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom He had formed” (2:8).   This garden was the ideal habitat for man in which to grow and develop, the natural cultural surrounding within whose boundaries human beings could be fruitful and multiply while steadily developing socially on the basis of a moral way of life.   The tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and bad, which were planted in the Garden of Eden, symbolize the threefold obligation that man has: to the earth which provides his physical needs (“to till it and tend it”), to his fellow man, and to other living creatures in the world. [2]

The difficulty, however, is that man betrayed this destiny.  He violated the Lord’s prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge.   He failed morally by abusing the freedom of choice which was given him.  Man’s sin was twofold:  not only did he evade personal responsibility for his actions, he even pointed an accusing finger at his fellow human being.  Adam chose to cast the responsibility on his wife, and she in turn passed it on to the snake.  Adam and Eve are portrayed as weak, passive figures lacking in moral judgment, people without a sense of guilt or awareness of their human shortcomings, whose attempt to get away from G-d is accompanied by lying and hiding.

Since Adam and Eve did not have parents or teachers to mold their way in life, the Lord assumed the role of ideal educator.  A close look at the verses describing the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge shows that the Lord sought to investigate the course of events thoroughly.   In contrast to Adam, He did not rush to make accusations, or to punish without first establishing the facts accurately.  His pointed questions to the couple were intended to evoke self-awareness in them.   G-d’s call to Adam, “Where are you?” contains a didactic message to all human beings:   one must stand up and be counted, live a life of truth that is not characterized by self-denial and excuses, and remain faithful to inner moral values. [3]

Along with this question, “Where are you?” there is no mention of the sin committed.   Adam plays innocent and excuses his hiding by the fact that he is naked, not that he had sinned by eating the forbidden fruit.  G-d’s response, “Who told you that you were naked?  Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” (3:11) is most instructive, for it lacks any direct accusation.  In contrast to Adam, who put the blame on Eve (who in turn passed it on to the snake), just as small children tend to do, the Lord does not lose patience and makes a thorough investigation of the course of events.   The punishments given Adam, Eve, and the snake are carefully explained as well (verses 14-19), and are set out in view of the situation in which the three transgressors do not acknowledge their sin or take responsibility for their actions.  Indeed, the fascinating process of education that takes place patiently, step by step, has a tremendous impact on the reader.

B.  The story of Cain and Abel –loss of parental authority

The Sages stress that Adam brought death into the world, pointing to the verse “As soon as you eat of it, you shall die” as intimating death for Adam, death for Eve, and death for their descendants (Genesis Rabbah 16:6).  In other words, the moral failing of the couple carried over to subsequent generations, first and foremost their first two progeny – Cain and Abel.  The main points of this first story of sibling rivalry are well-known:  the two sons represent the first generation that was forced to cope with human survival outside of the Garden of Eden.   Cain, a tiller of the soil, murdered his younger brother Abel, a shepherd.  The motive for the murder was jealousy stemming from the fact that, for a reason not mentioned in the Torah, G-d preferred Abel’s offering.   Cain tried to cover up the act he committed, but G-d did not let him get away with this.   Nevertheless, notwithstanding the gravity of his crime, the Lord did not impose a fitting punishment on Cain. Instead, he made him a ceaseless wanderer on earth, bearing a special sign, “lest anyone who met him should kill him” (4:1-15).

The story of Abel’s murder by Cain raises poignant questions:  how could it be that man, created in the image of G-d, should have committed the most heinous moral and social crime?   Is there any connection between the essence of the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge and the destructive act performed by Cain, which amounted to wiping out one fourth of the world’s population at the time?  What can we learn from the lengthy conversation that G-d had with Cain, both before and after the murder?

First, we must understand the Cain and Abel, just like Adam and Eve, do not appear in the Torah simply as private individuals; they are archetypes representing the way humans cope with hardships that might face us all, especially in the context of the family, at any time and place.  Secondly, after the first two verses describing the births of the two sons (verses 1-2), Adam and Eve disappear from the story, as if the murderous act and its tragic result do not touch them at all.  Only towards the end of the chapter does the Torah mention that Adam and Eve brought another son into the world, by the name of Seth, and that his mother called him this because “G-d has provided me [Heb. shat, a play on words with the name Seth] with another offspring in place of Abel” (4:25).   Thus it turns out that alongside the passivity that characterized the personalities of Adam and Eve, there also surfaced feelings of pain and frustration in the face of their inability to prevent their younger son from being murdered by his brother, and this tragedy became a trauma which shaped their lives.  Third, and most important of all, in the wake of this loss of control over one’s children (today we would call it loss of parental authority), G-d was forced to intervene in events and essentially to assume Himself the role of the perfect educator of Cain.

It is not clear from the plain sense of the text why precisely “the Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed” (4:4-5). [4]   Be that as it may, following this seemingly arbitrary rejection of his offering, Cain felt a strong sense of frustration and jealously.  Cain felt his love for G-d went unrequited.  His outburst of fury presumably was further fueled by the weakness and passivity of Adam and Eve.  At the decisive moment when Cain needed a soothing word, a caressing hand, a loving glance, his mother and father were distant and apathetic.   Like a sensitive parent, G-d addressed Cain to find out the reason for his somber mood:   “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen?  Surely, if you do right, there is uplift.  But if you do not do right, sin couches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master” (4:6-7).  In the last sentence, which has been given numerous interpretations, the Lord sought to bolster the moral strength of the rejected son and provide him with good counsel for life:  if you do good, you will have an advantage (uplift).  But if you do not do good, sin couches at your door, but even though your urge is towards it, you could still master and overcome it.

Thus Cain was shown that he could exercise free will.  Here, too, we see a patently didactic objective:  indeed, man was created with the option of sinning, but at the same time it was within his ability to stand up to temptation; if he did indeed sin, he could still repent.  Responsibility for his actions was placed on him, as someone who is capable of controlling his feelings and urges.  Perhaps Cain was impressed by the gentle fatherly tone accompanying G-d’s words, for after they were uttered he tried to speak with Abel:   “Cain said to his brother Abel” (4:8).  The Torah does not give the details of the exchange between the two brothers (nevertheless, the key word “brother” which recurs several times in the story hints at a person’s obligation to relate to one’s fellow with a sense of brotherhood), [5] but the fact is that first Cain tried to talk things out.   Only after this initiative failed do we read, “Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him” (4:8).   It turns out that violence is tied to an inability to solve emotional conflicts through effective use of language and words.

Scripture does not describe the feelings of the murdered brother, and relates nothing about the parents’ reaction.  Once more G-d is “forced” into the thick of things:  “The Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’” (4:9). The first time that G-d addresses Cain after the murder, He is coolly restrained.   Anger and retribution can wait until the educational process is concluded.  We are amazed at the matter-of-fact approach, for no human could have reacted in this way.  Only after Cain plays innocent, responding, “I do not know.   Am I my brother’s keeper?” does G-d take a sharper tone:  “What have you done?  Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” (4:10). Here, too, the conversation is tactful yet forceful.   Cain is not directly accused of murder, but made to confront the full depth of the lie that characterizes his behavior.  In truth, nothing is hidden from G-d, who can hear blood crying out from the ground. [6]   The text continues directly:   “Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.  If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you.  You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth” (4:11-12).  The greatest punishment that can be given Cain is not to execute him, for revenge that is just as severe as the crime itself will not necessarily improve the ways of human beings.  Cain’s punishment stems from his recognition that he has the potential for doing evil, and bad things do not always come as an action caused by an outside force.

Finally Cain accepts full responsibility:  “My punishment [or sin] is too great to bear!  Since You have banished me this day from the soil, and I must avoid Your presence and become a restless wanderer on earth – anyone who meets me may kill me!” (4:13-14). His turbulent soul wanders ceaselessly in search of satisfaction and knows no rest.   Cain acknowledges the gravity of what he has done and essentially anticipates a more severe punishment than that which G-d had in mind for him.  Nevertheless, G-d refuses to give him the death sentence, since he has already expressed utter regret over having murdered his brother.   The special mark which G-d put on Cain “lest anyone who met him should kill him” (4:15) [7] is intended to provide him refuge and protection, not to be a mark of condemnation.  The moment that Cain listens to his conscience and to the voice of Divine Providence surrounding him is also the moment when his soul rallies to make amends and rehabilitate the human race.

Cain’s end, as well, attests to his having measured up to the educational standards set by G-d:   “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch.  And he then founded a city, and named the city after his son Enoch” (4:17).  Cain chose to shape his life by building, not destroying.   The selfish drives and urges that governed his life up to the act of murdering his brother Abel made way for recognition of the value of life.  These two actions – establishing a generation to continue his line and building a city – stemmed from channeling the positive emotional strength a person has towards creative, altruistic ends.   Both express faith in the future of the human race.  Cain went a long way from having been enslaved to the feelings of jealousy, despair and anger that welled up in him and led him to the brink of an abyss, all the way to the act of correction which serves as a landmark in the development of human civilization.  The marvelous educational method used by G-d led to complete rehabilitation of the murderer, who felt himself under a life-sentence due to a sense of guilt and yearning for self-correction.  Cain’s moral sensitivity is bolstered by the force of a central factor which is hinted at by the name of his son, Enoch [Heb. Hanokh] – education [Heb. hinukh].

C.  Education within the family context – lessons for the future

It is fascinating to compare the story of the tree of knowledge with the story of Cain and Abel.   In both man was warned to beware of sin, and in both he violated the Lord’s command.   In both instances the Lord turned to man after he had committed the transgression and tried to establish what had happened, and ultimately the sinner was banished from where he was to another place.  In legal terms, it was G-d who performed all the functions associated with administering justice – “He is the investigator (even though He does not need to investigate in order to establish the facts, and the purpose of His investigation is to enable the accused to voice their claims), the prosecutor, and the judge who passes the verdict and determines the sentence.” [8]

On the other hand, there are many differences between the two stories.  Adam and Eve committed a transgression that concerns relations between man and G-d (failure to fulfill G-d’s command), whereas Cain committed a crime of unparalleled severity in the realm of relations between man and man.   Adam and Eve admitted their act, even though they tried to pass the blame on to the next person.   Cain, in contrast, tried to deny the fact of the murder itself.  Only after the exchange between him and G-d did he cry out, “My punishment is too great to bear!” (4:13). Recognizing the full extent of his sin, Cain was able to reach moral levels which his parents did not reach.

Let me conclude by saying that there are many didactic lessons to be learned from the story of the sins committed by the first family in the history of the universe, and this is especially prominent in the generation of the sons.   The Torah stresses that the ability to talk things over properly with one’s fellow is capable of saving life, and in apposition it teaches us to respond with horror and severity to any murderous act.  I quote Rabbi Zvi Neriah on the story of Cain and Abel: [9]

The world must return and learn from primordial times:   to know that human life is sacred, that ideological conflict need not be resolved only by use of force.   There is room in the world for opposing views, and freedom of opinion and freedom of thought must reign in our world.

Fanatic violence is the fruit of the failure to establish verbal communication between people, based on tolerance and mutual respect.  The power of free will that is given human beings can help them climb to heights of goodness, charity and sanctity, or alternatively to descend to the lowest of the low.  Developing a sense of personal responsibility is a central means in subduing one’s evil inclinations and preventing destructive behavior.

Adam and Eve’s failure to properly educate their children left the arena to Divine Providence, which assumed the rule of ideal educator.  The theory of education that is learned from Parashat Bereshit sketches the main stages in the relationship of parents and educators towards wayward children-students:  initially attempting to establish the motives for the act in a matter-of-fact way, refraining from exaggerated anger; giving the person who committed the transgression the option of admitting that he acted wrongly; determining the punishment in consultation with the sinful child, while taking care to maintain proper measure in relationship to the severity of the crime; finally, following up in order to examine whether there has been any improvement in the behavior of he who was punished.

The Midrash recounts that when the Holy One, blessed be He, created Adam, “He took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him:   Note how fine and excellent are My works!  All that I have created, I created for you.  Take care not to spoil or destroy My world, for if you spoil it, there is no one who will come and repair it after you” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13).   The recognition that if you ruin something, there is no one who will repair it after you should routinely accompany all of us, parents and teachers, in our ceaseless effort the shape the younger generation.  The moral level of the next generation is a direct product of the education they receive in their parents’ home, and it is within our hands to direct them along the path to understand that “its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master” (Gen. 4:7).


[1] Z. Adar, Ha-Arakhim ha-Hinukhiyim shel ha-Tanakh, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv 1964, pp. 39-40.

[2] See E. Shweid, Ha-Philosophia shel ha-Tanakh ke-Yesod Tarbut Yisrael, Tel Aviv 2004, pp. 70-71.

[3] N. Tziyyon, “Middah Neged Middah:   al Totza’ot ha-Akhilah min ha-Etz,” in T. Tziyyon (ed.), Sippurei Reshit:   Rav-Si’ah al She’elot Enoshiyot be-Sefer Bereshit, Tel Aviv 2002, p. 112.

[4] The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 22:7) tries to fill in what is missing, offering several different possibilities:  according to one view, their argument concerned dividing the property, one taking the real-estate and the other taking the chattel, one of them saying to the other:  Give me your clothes,  and the other responding:   Get off the land!   Others maintained that a rift developed between the brothers over a dispute concerning religion and ritual, each of them proclaiming the Temple would be built within his land.  Still others were of the view that a contest for a woman lay behind their disagreement.

[5] Y. Rosenson, “Ahim ve-Akhvah ve-Hashivutan shel Milim Manhot be-Sefer Bereshit,” Shema’tin 23: 85-86 (1986), pp. 7-14.

[6]   Also cf. A. B. Yehoshua, Cohah ha-Nora shel Ashmah Ketanah, Tel Aviv 1998, pp. 39-40.

[7] Regarding the severity of Cain’s punishment, see Avi Dershowitz, The Genesis of Justice:10 Stories of Biblical Injustice That Led to the 10 Commandments and Modern Morality and Law, New York (2000).

[8] D. Friedman, Ha-Ratzahtah ve-Gam Yarashtah:   Musar ve-Hevrah be-Sippurei ha-Mikra, Tel Aviv 2000, pp. 21-22.

[9] M. Z. Neriah, Ner la-Maor, Or Etzion Torah Institute, 2001, p. 110.