Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bereshit 5765/ October 9, 2004

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,


“But to Cain and his offering He paid no heed”

Professor Dov Landau
Department of Comparative Literature


The story of Cain and Abel, two brothers who turn out to be rivals, has surprises in store for the attentive reader.   Let us take a close look at the course of events as they are revealed in Scripture (Gen. 4:2-6):

Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil.   In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock.  The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed.  Cain was much distressed and his face fell.  And the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen?”

The attentive reader must surely wonder, why was Cain treated thus?  The very (almost ironic) question, why is your face fallen, itself arouses wonderment, for it is clear from the text that Cain was rejected by G-d, and hence it was natural that he look downcast.  Moreover, one wonders what happened that was so grave as to lead to murder, and why did Cain put the blame on his brother Abel, turning his anger on him?

Cain’s Rejection

On the face of it, nothing seems to have been wrong with Cain’s occupation.  The world needs both of them, and in those days, when human beings had not yet been permitted to eat meat and most of their food came from the soil, Cain’s occupation might even have seemed more important.  Also, Cain took the initiative and tried to draw close to G-d and bring Him pleasure, since he saw Him as the source of abundance.   The offering he brought may also have expressed thanksgiving.  In any event, it is hard for us to find a reason for his offering to have been rejected  by G-d.   True, Abel brought from the firstlings of his flocks, i.e., from the choicest, but nowhere do we find that the Torah requires an offering to be particularly choice; the offering must be perfect, without blemish, but only rarely does the Torah relate to extra embellishment of the commandments.  Quite the contrary, we have the example of an offering on a sliding scale, where a person can bring of his flocks, but also a bird, or even something vegetarian, all according to his means (Lev. 5:5-14), and nowhere have we heard that the offering of the poor person is considered lesser in any way than the offering of the rich.  Nor does the plain sense of Scripture here give the slightest inkling of a blemish in Cain or in his offering.  These facts sharpen the question, what defect was found in Cain’s offering?

It should be stressed that not only was Cain’s offering rejected, but also Cain himself, as it is said:   “but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed.”   Likewise with Abel, it says that the G-d paid heed to Abel, not just to his offering:   “The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering.”   By mentioning the person’s name before the person’s offering, Scripture teaches us at this early stage that G-d’s attitude towards them did not depend solely on the nature of the offering they brought, but first and foremost on the personality of the individual bringing the offering.  Indeed, the end of the story is indicative of Cain’s personality – a person who is overcome by jealousy to the point of losing his mind and murdering his brother.   According to this reading, there is no discrimination between one offering and the other, rather there is retribution for Cain’s bad traits.  The question arises whether Abel, who supposedly knew his brother and his personality, was sufficiently careful not to arouse Cain’s jealousy and fury?

Abel—Less than Perfect

This transfers the question from Cain to Abel.   The Talmud says, “It would have been better had Man not been created.  But now that he has been created, let him search (Heb. yefashpesh)  his own deeds.”   A different version of this saying occurs in Eruvin 13b, where the verb yemashmesh is used instead.  In Mesillat Yesharim (The Path of the Righteous) Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzato explains the difference between these two expressions, claiming that yefashpesh refers to examining one’s bad deeds, which a person must look into in order to correct.  In contrast, yemashmesh is directed at the good deeds, which require investigation, as well, on the chance that they were done duplicitously or not with the best intentions.   By this token, we must also examine Abel’s actions to see if they did not have something unbecoming in them, something which it would have been better to avoid.

The Superiority of Light from Darkness

To answer this question we shall avail ourselves of an interpretation for Ecclesiastes (2:13):  I found that wisdom is superior to folly, as light is superior to darkness.”

Is there a living person who does not know that wisdom is superior to folly, just as all know the superiority of light to darkness?   Why the emphasis, I found?   Further, is this such a fine distinction that one needs the wisdom of King Solomon to arrive at it? These questions too will be answered by turning to yet a third source. According to the comments by the author of Akedat Yitzhak on next week’s Parashat Noah, it turns out that the flood was a necessary consequence of the negative turn taken in the social and moral condition of mankind.   Adam perceived the world with mighty religious excitement.  Every stone, every tree, every little brook was amazing in his eyes; the fact that the sun shone, that the moon rose, that the rain fell, that human beings were born – all these filled him with wonder, making his heart leap for joy.   This emotional state provided a fine setting for morality, fear of G-d, and religious aspiration to a world of holiness. 

In the course of the ten generations from Adam to Noah, however, the world sank into the routine of daily life and the flame of excitement gradually died down, and with it went the religious inspiration of the earlier generations that had even brought Cain to seek closeness to G-d.  After all the enthusiasm dwindled, after fear of G-d became fossilized, it was little wonder that the world degenerated and became filled with corruption.   It is comparable to what Abraham said to Abimelech:   Surely there is no fear of G-d in this place, and they will kill me…” (Gen. 20:11), meaning that where religious and moral sentiments are lacking, there is nothing to prevent corruption or murder.

The Flood—a necessary condition

Therefore it is little wonder that ten generations later we find a new situation in which the world is filled with robbery and murder, as it is written, “the earth was filled with lawlessness” (Gen. 6:11).  In a world where everyone acts lawlessly, where there is no human culture, where human beings have degenerated to the level of wild beasts, there is no justification for human beings or for the world to continue existing.   Mankind became so degenerate, so animal-like, that there was no return.  In such a situation the only thing that can be done is to wipe everything out in order to build everything anew, in order to restore the excitement at that which is new in the world and thereby to restore fear of G-d to its former level.  The cure for the evil in the world lay in wiping it out and restoring the good; and it is essential that all human beings recognize and know this dichotomy between good and evil, that they feel and internalize it and sin no more.   Only through the contrast between the old world, where “all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth” (Gen. 6:12) coupled with “I am about to destroy them with the earth” (Gen. 6:13), and the new world that would grow from its ruins, would it be possible to restore the religious inspiration that was essential in order to renew fear of G-d.

In like manner one should understand the superiority of light over darkness.   This expression does not refer to the fact that light is better than darkness, for that is patently clear.   Hence one necessarily must interpret the phrase over darkness (literally “from darkness”--min hahoshekh) as describing the cause.  What is it that causes us to know that light is preferable to darkness?   The answer is that this knowledge comes to us “from the darkness”, because of the darkness.   Were there no darkness, we would not know the nature of light.  In exactly the same way we know the advantage of wisdom over folly only through comparison.   Were there no fools in the world, we would not know the advantage of wisdom.  This also works in the opposite direction:   were it not that we are cognizant of the superiority of light and of wisdom, we would not be able to conceive of the inferiority of darkness and folly.  Similarly, of course, regarding the quality of the offering or the quality of drawing near to G-d.  Were it not for the special superiority that Abel gave to his offering, we would not be aware of the inferiority of Cain’s offering.

Religious One-upmanship

Perhaps this helps explain the flaw that can be seen in Abel’s actions.   What essentially did Abel do?   He wished to be superior to Cain in bringing from the firstlings of his flock.  He simply raised the standard for offerings, but he raised the level when Cain could no longer correct what already lay in the past.   The expression gam hu “for his part” (lit. “also he”), in the verse, “and Abel, for his part (Gen. 4:4), clearly indicates that Abel brought his offering after Cain had brought his, and that he had seen what Cain had brought.  Henceforth any qualitative or quantitative superiority in Abel’s offering could be interpreted as competitiveness, or even as inciting Cain.  Now Abel succeeded in this competition.  The Lord kept to the principle of free choice and did not intervene in relations between one person and another; and so He gave Abel the reward that he deserved purely on the basis of his actions, without taking into consideration the possible response they would evoke from Cain.  Cain, for his part, perceived the situation as follows: after his initiative in bringing an offering, Abel came and “upped the ante” for drawing near to G-d.  Henceforth it would no longer suffice to bring an offering to G-d, rather, one would have to embellish that offering, and as in a public auction, one could not know in advance how high the price might go.  Thus it is not surprising that the new situation made Cain feel totally helpless and aroused his ire.

In this way Cain became frustrated, and frustration is one of the most dangerous things.   Frustration makes a person lose his head and even lose track of what G-d wants.   This teaches us how careful we must be not to cause our fellow anger, not to arouse jealousy, neither with ostentatious luxury items nor by basking in our successes.  Abel’s intentions might have been for the good; he might have been seeking elation, seeking to give the very best, out of his aspiration for perfection.  However it seems clear that he showed insufficient sensitivity to his brother Cain.   According to the principle of free choice, G-d need not forestall his doing so, but Abel, as a human being and brother, ought to have shown far greater sensitivity.   The expression, “for his part,” connects Abel’s offering to that of Cain in time and place.   It appears that the hour when Cain made his offering, or some time close to it, was not the appropriate time for showing excessive righteousness.  Any righteousness done in close proximity to a similar action by another person can be counted to the detriment of the other person.  Abel failed in the test of showing the necessary sensitivity that would prevent a deed, which is good in itself, from causing harm to his fellow.

Perhaps in this way we can understand why the Lord did not follow the principle of a life for a life with respect to Cain.  Apparently the Judge of all the Land perceived extenuating circumstances and took into consideration the fact that Abel had in a way incited Cain.   The relatively light punishment given Cain for committing murder – that he become a ceaseless wanderer – does not enable us to argue that the victim was to blame instead of the murderer.   Certainly not.   There is absolutely no justification for killing a person, not even in a moment of jealousy.   Yet we cannot ignore the fact that it was sufficient for G-d Himself to punish Cain by making him “become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.”  In this respect Cain’s expulsion closely resembles expulsion to a city of refuge.  Indeed, Cain and his punishment have been compared to the case of unwitting manslaughter.

This interpretation of the story might explain G-d’s words to Cain:   Halo im tetiv se’et (Gen. 4:7, rendered in the New JPS Translation as “Surely, if you do right, there is uplift”).   Our understanding of that verse is otherwise: If you bear (se’et) your punishment-failure with patient submission, that would be best (tetiv).   However, if you do not know how to restrain yourself, “sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you.”   It appears, in my humble opinion, that the concluding words, “Yet you can be its master” (loc. sit.) stand on their own at the very end of the verse, indicating G-d’s instruction or guidance regarding how Cain could serve as an example to future generations.   Had Cain accepted the fact that he and his offering had been rejected, he could have been an example to later generations; he would have been a paragon of self-restraint, holding himself back from murder at any cost.  Cain did not succeed in the difficult challenge of showing that “yet you can be its master,” and many generations of human beings who came into the world after him, following in his wake, had the same failing.