“Being Moral in an Increasingly Immoral Environment”
(updated and revised from Bereshith 5763-2002)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Bereshith, is one of the richest of all the narrative portions of the Torah. One of the best-known chapters is chapter 4 of Genesis which relates the well-known story of Cain and Abel, קַיִן וְהֶבֶל, the sons of Adam and Eve.

The story of Cain and Abel is particularly fascinating and deserves much study and analysis. However, before we begin, let’s take a look at a key verse in Genesis 2:15 where it states that G-d took the human being and put him in to the Garden of Eden, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ, to work it (the land) and to guard it. In effect, the human being was given two charges: to work the land and to protect the land. This may very well be the first statement of environmental concern ever recorded.

In Genesis 4:1, the Torah informs us that Adam knew Eve, his wife, (which is the biblical way of referring to sexual relations), and Eve conceived and bore a son, Cain, saying, “’I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.’” The Hebrew name Cain, קַיִן Kayin means literally to acquire.

The story continues: Verse 2: “And again she bore his brother Abel.” The rabbis say that Cain and Abel were actually twins, which they derive from the fact that verse 2 doesn’t mention that Eve conceived, as it did in the first verse. “And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.” Remember the two charges that G-d gave the human being in Genesis 2:15, “to work and to guard.” Well, Abel was designated to serve as a guard (shepherd) and Cain was designated to serve as a worker (farmer). Now, notice that Eve does not explain why she named her second child “Abel.” The name Abel, הֶבֶל Hevel, in Hebrew means “nothing” or “vanity.” What a strange name to give a child. In fact, Hevel literally means, spittle or mist, a rather demeaning appellation for a child.

Verse 3: “And in the process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the L-rd.” Apparently, after seeing his bountiful harvest, Cain is moved to give a gift to G-d. But he brings a rather casual gift, without giving it much consideration. The Torah describes it as “of the fruit of the ground.”

Verse 4: “And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of the flock and of the fat thereof.” Abel also wished to express his gratitude for the beneficence of G-d. He, however, brings a special gift of the firstlings of the flock and the fat thereof. The Torah informs us: “And the L-rd had respect unto Abel and to his offering.” Verse 5: “But unto Cain and to his offering, He (G-d) had no respect.” The rabbis explain that the column of smoke above Abel’s altar went directly up, whereas the smoke on Cain’s altar was blown away. “And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.” Cain was obviously very upset that his offering wasn’t properly accepted.

Verse 6: “And the L-rd said unto Cain: ‘Why are you angry? And why is your countenance fallen?’ Verse 7: ‘If you do well, shall it not be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin awaits you at the door; and to you is its desire, but you may rule over it.’” G-d tells Cain, the “acquirer,” that he must not allow himself to get caught in a behavioral pattern of evil, because evil habits are hard to break. G-d encourages Cain, telling him clearly that He has the absolute ability to break from those evil patterns.

 Verse 8: “And Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.” The Bible doesn’t reveal the nature of the conversation between Cain and Abel. The rabbis however speculate that they argued over the family inheritance–after all they had to divide a great deal of real estate–7 continents. They had to decide who was going to get Jerusalem, and who would wind up with Las Vegas, who would get Manhattan and who was to be stuck with desert property. Some rabbis suggest that the quarrel was over religion, since Cain’s offering was not accepted while Abel’s was. And finally, a group of rabbis suggest that the argument was over love. Since there was only one woman in the world, Eve, their mother was the only female available to procreate, and the brothers were fighting over her love. Whatever the context and cause, Cain rises up and kills Abel. Cain the “acquirer,” kills Abel–“Mr. Nothing, Mr. Vanity.”

 Verse 9: “And the L-rd said to Cain: ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ And he said: ‘I know not; am I my brother’s keeper?’” Cain, trying to be clever, says to G-d, “What do you want with me, after all I was the worker, he was the guard!”

 G-d is not amused. Verse 10: “And He [G-d] said: ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.’” Verse 11: “’And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened her mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.’” Verse 12: “’When you will till the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto you her strength; a fugitive and a wanderer will you be in the earth!’” G-d tells Cain that in response to his heinous act, the earth has rejected him, that he’ll never have a place to rest, and that when he walks, the earth will tremble under his feet. Perhaps this is the origin of the well-known song, “I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the sky tumbling down…” (Just joking!).

What is Cain’s reaction? Verse 13: “And Cain said unto the L-rd: ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear.’” Verse 14: “’Behold, You have driven me out this day from the face of the land; and from Your face will I be hidden; and I will be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth; and it will come to pass, that whoever finds me will slay me.’” Cain is deadly afraid that everybody will try to avenge Abel’s death.

Verse 15: “And the L-rd said unto him (unto Cain): ‘Therefore, whoever slays [you] Cain, vengeance will be taken upon him sevenfold.’ And the L-rd set a sign on Cain, lest anyone who finds him should smite him.” A sign is placed on Cain so that everybody will know that whoever hurts Cain will be severely punished.

Starting with verse 16 and following, begins a portion of the narrative that describes the births of the descendants of Cain. On the surface, it appears to be a rather boring and dull section, but we’ll see how genuinely exciting and enlightening it really is.

Verse 16: “And Cain went out from the presence of the L-rd, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.” Now the actual meaning of the word “Nod” is to move or sway, in other words, the land literally moved under Cain’s feet, quaking wherever he stepped. Poor Cain, never had a moment’s rest. It is quite likely that Cain never slept in the same bed for two consecutive nights.

Verse 17: “And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bore Enoch, (in Hebrew Chanoch), and he built a city and called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.” Why was Cain so determined to build a city? It is not unusual for parents who suffer a particular deprivation during their own youth, to seek to make certain that their children do not suffer that same deprivation. Cain becomes the great urban developer, the Donald Trump of his era, he builds high-rise buildings all over the land to make certain that his son, Enoch, Chanoch, which means dedication, dwells in tranquility and comfort.

Verse 18: “And unto Enoch was born Irad; and Irad bore Mehujael; and Mehujael bore Methushael; and Methushael bore Lemech.”

Lemech is an interesting character. In Yiddish, a “Lemechel” means a wimp, or a loser. Let’s take a look at Lemech.

Verse 19: “And Lemech took unto him two wives; the name of one was Adah, and the name of the other was Zillah.” Two wives? Doesn’t sound like a wimp to me! According to tradition, Lemech has two wives–Adah for procreation, and Zillah for beauty. But, the birth control that they used was not very reliable.

Verse 20: “And Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle.” So, the great-grandson of the murderer Cain, becomes a world-class rancher. Jabal establishes dude ranches for those who yearn for an authentic “Western” experience. He owns thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of heads of cattle. And what about Abel, the religionist, the spiritualist? Dead as a doorknob. Nothing at all–the precise fulfillment of his predictive name–vanity, Hevel, Nothing!

Verse 21: “And his [Jaba]) brother’s name was Jubal; and he was the father of all who handle the harp and pipe.” Isn’t this fascinating? The great-grandson of the murderer becomes the father of music and literature, the progenitor of Mozart and Beethoven, Shakespeare and Wordsworth! The parent of aesthetics, opera, painting and poetry!

Verse 22: “And Zillah (the wife who was not supposed to have babies), she also bore Tubal-Cain, the forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron.” Note that all of Lemech’s children’s names are based on the three letter Hebrew root of Yabal or Jabul. Zillah’s son’s name however includes the additional name Cain, “Tubal-Cain.” Zillah is not at all embarrassed to proclaim to all that her son is a direct descendent of the renowned murderer, Cain. And what does Tubal-Cain become? The forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron! He becomes the inventor of weapons of death and destruction–knives and bayonets, spears, bows and arrows, and, theoretically, the father of gunpowder, and ultimately the creator of the atom bomb. It was inevitable that the great-grandson of the murderer, Cain, would perfect his ancestor’s calling—”The art of death and killing!”

Parenthetically, verse 22 ends with a cryptic note: “And the sister of Tubal-Cain was Naamah.” The rabbis say that Naamah is mentioned, because, according to tradition, Naamah is the wife of Noah, of Flood fame.

The Midrash, the legendary interpretation of the Bible, provides the background which accounts for the Yiddishism “Lemech”–meaning a wimp. The legend maintains that Lemech was blind, and that he had a very strange hobby for a blind man–he loved to hunt! He would go out to the fields with his son Tubal-Cain, the famed inventor of the spear and the bow and arrow, and Tubal-Cain would direct his father to aim the arrow and inform Lemech when to release it. One day, father and son were hunting. Tubal-Cain instructs his father to “shoot.” Lemech shoots. Together they go to see the “kill.” Well, again, according to the Midrash, they reach the dead “animal” and Tubal-Cain exclaims, “Dad, I have bad news! It isn’t a deer, it’s Grandpa!” The Midrash says that Lemech was so overwrought, that he clasped his hands together, screaming, “Oy vey!” Unfortunately, as he clasped his hands, he smashed Tubal-Cain’s head. That is why, upon his return home, Lemech recites the following verses to his wives:

Verse 23: “And Lemech said to his wives:

Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;

You wives of Lemech, listen to my speech;

For I have slain a man for wounding me,

And a young man for bruising me;

Verse 24: If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold,

Truly Lemech, seventy and sevenfold.”

This should explain why Lemech is thought to be a loser or a wimp. 

It’s a fascinating story. But what is the Bible’s message? A very cryptic and enigmatic message, to be sure! It seems to say that out of Abel the religionist, comes nothing. His name is “vanity,” and vanity is what results. Nothing remains—he is six feet under, “pushing daisies,” as they say.

But Genesis 4 also seems to say that the creativity, the development of music and musical instruments, and of poetry and urban development, and cattle ranching, all descended from the murderer, from the violent person. What is the message that the Torah is transmitting?

Perhaps, the first four chapters of the Bible are presenting humanity with a provocative and fateful challenge–How can humans be creative, and not be reduced to violence? The truth of the matter is that all creativity results in some form of violence. As creators, we often do violence to the environment, we do violence to our personal time, to our relationships, etc. etc. But the question that is really articulated and emphasized here is: How can a human being remain moral, in an increasingly immoral environment? How can humans be creative, and the process not result in immorality, as we witnessed in Chapter 4 of Genesis? G-d‘s answer to that profound question is: Study the rest of My Torah. Master the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and you will have in your hands the formula for remaining moral in an increasingly immoral environment.

What emerges from this provocative and challenging story, (which we assumed would also be so boring) is a message for every human being, and a message for every life

Study it, review it, challenge it, imbibe it.

May you be blessed.

On Monday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Tuesday, September 28th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Tuesday evening, September 28th and continues through Wednesday, September 29th.