Cain and Abel - Hashem: The Personal God
What is God?
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Contrary to popular belief, the Garden of Eden story doesn’t really end with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. It continues into the next chapter with its sequel, the tragic episode of Cain and Abel. But there is a noticeable change between the narratives. Adam and Eve seem to exist in a mythical world of talking snakes and magical trees, while Cain and Abel live in a real world of farming and sheep, of jealousy and murder and denial. Both stories speak to all humanity in a profound and far-reaching way. They speak of the human condition and the tragedy of not living up to our spiritual potential, and bearing the consequences of failure.
But there are glaring differences between the two stories. Among other things, there is the ‘silver lining’ that was reserved for Adam and Eve in that the way back to the Tree of Life was still protected for them. Their lives changed profoundly as a result of their sin, but they accepted the difficult fate of physical pain, hardship, and death as all human beings must, recognizing it as essential to life. Despite this harsh destiny, they still had a way back. Cain, as we shall see, had no silver lining and was unable to accept his fate. He represents all those who cannot live up to their tasks in life and cannot accept the consequences of their own failure. He is the great tragedy of humanity.
There is another significant difference that is apparent to those who take a closer look. The name of God has changed once again. Throughout the Garden of Eden it was YHWH Elohim. From here on, the name of YHWH stands alone without the accompaniment of Elohim. This is a crucial change that must be examined and understood. What is the image of YHWH alone?
The first verse in the fourth chapter introduces this new image with no apparent reason. There doesn’t appear to be any break with the previous section. It seems to flow very nicely from Adam and Eve into Cain and Abel. Cain and Abel then bring offerings of their work to Hashem. Abel’s is accepted but Cain’s is rejected for no apparent reason. This inequality in Hashem’s treatment of the two brothers is troubling. Why should Hashem accept Abel’s offering and reject Cain’s? Cain’s reaction, naturally enough, is one of anger and disappointment. At this point Hashem intervenes and asks him why he is angry and disappointed. Hashem encourages him to improve himself and warns him that if he doesn’t do so, sin always lurks waiting to snare him with its urges, but that he can control those urges.
The very next verse finds Cain and Abel out in a field, and with no warning, Cain slays his brother. At this point Hashem asks Cain the famous question: ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ Cain’s response is even more famous: ‘I do not know, am I my brother’s keeper?’ Hashem’s rejoinder to this is ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground’. Cain is then punished by having the earth which swallowed his brother’s blood cursed for him and he himself is subjected to the life of an exile and a wanderer. He complains that his punishment is too harsh and that all who find him will kill him. After Hashem gives him some sort of ‘mark’ that assures him that he needn’t worry about this, Cain leaves the presence of Hashem and settles east of Eden.
What is Hashem asking Cain in that fateful question? What is Cain’s evasive answer that leads to his expulsion from society and rejection of God? Furthermore, why is it that only the Hashem image communicates with Cain, and not the Elohim image? These are not easy questions and they cut to the core of the Biblical message to human beings – we all have to face the voice of God at some point in our lives. Some look forward to it as an opportunity for spiritual challenge. Others see it as an unwelcome intrusion into a life that was comfortably devoid of introspection. We are all Cain in some way or another. We may not be murderers guilty of fratricide, but we all have our moments of failure and we all run the risk of refusing to face up to it.
Cain himself is an enigma. He does nothing wrong but his offering is rejected. He succumbs to the very human emotions of anger and disappointment but takes his anger out on his brother who had nothing to do with it, instead of on Hashem who had everything to do with it. Is this guy just suffering from an inability to cope with bad luck? Why can’t he get himself together after that little pep talk from Hashem? Hashem’s message to him is clear: you can and must improve yourself – if you do, things will go good; if not, they will go bad. But you can beat this thing. You can do it.
This final message is all contained in one single Hebrew word, Timshal (control). It means that you and you alone have the power to control your own personal destiny. This idea, this single word, is so significant that the famous 20th century American author, John Steinbeck, wrote an entire novel based around it. The novel, fittingly called East of Eden, revolves around taking the reins in one’s life, and accepting personal faults and the faults of others. The book closes with this very Hebrew word communicated from Hashem to Cain.
But Cain managed to ignore that message and killed his brother. He knew that he had the power to resist the urge, but he somehow didn’t want to listen to that voice in his conscience telling him ‘control’. The rest is history. Hashem, in asking Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel’, is playing the role of Cain’s conscience. Somebody today who heard this same voice may write it off as repressed guilt or some deep moral calling. To the Bible, it is nothing less than the voice of Hashem. Hashem is not only ‘out there’. Hashem is ‘in there’ also, in the deepest recesses of our minds, in our thoughts and our emotions, in our moral choices and our guilt of failure. Hashem is as much a part of us as we are us. When Hashem asked this question, it was in a voice that Cain may have had trouble distinguishing from his own.
Cain’s response to this question is the classic human evasion of responsibility. Prior to the infamous, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper’, is the curious expression, ‘I do not know’. At least this is how this expression is invariably translated. It is a flat-out denial of what Cain knows to be the truth. Who is he kidding? Does he think he can fool Hashem? Does he think he can fool himself? The answer to the first question is that the only one he is kidding is himself. The answers to the other questions are ‘yes’ and ‘yes’. We all think we can fool ourselves and many times we are correct. Fooling God is child’s play in comparison. What is God if not some gnawing feeling in the mind? Dismissing it is no more difficult than putting a thought out of the mind. That is the strength and the weakness of this image of God – it is as personal as the mind itself; it is always there and always ignorable with a flick of the mind.
Is this not one of the primary roles God assumes in our lives - asking these eternal questions, waiting for an answer over the entire course of our lives, and doling out the consequences if we have none to respond with? With Adam it was a life of hardship and the inevitable pain of death, bereft of the satisfaction of knowing that he led a life worth living. With Cain it was the flashing realization of, ‘What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.’ There is no accusation, no room for denial. There is only Hashem holding up a mirror for Cain and demanding that he look at it and hear the never-ceasing voice of Abel demanding the days and years that he was deprived of, that Cain cannot ever give back.
What can a person such as Cain do? Where does he go? Exile, wandering, running away, avoiding people – can he even face himself after this? The Torah’s answer is a little disconcerting. He runs away from God. This is not a happy ending. But then again, at this point the Torah is not merely a book of parables. It is telling a very real traditional history that allows little or no room for poetic license. But there is something more here. The Torah is also warning us of the tragic outcome of a person who refuses to face up to the inner voice of the conscience - the voice of God that lurks within. The outcome is the Mark of Cain – the perpetual reminder of an outcast who, because he cannot face the voice of Hashem, cannot face others who can. This is not the way we want this story to end. But we need to hear it nevertheless.
Perceiving the Image
Hashem’s voice doesn’t just come to remind us of guilt. That may be a pretty classic manifestation of the voice but it isn’t the only one. The voice also speaks in moments of joy and inspiration. It is heard upon waking up in the morning and looking forward to a new day. It can be detected in the stillness of contemplation upon witnessing beauty in nature. It is the spiritual pat on the back one feels after successfully overcoming an emotional obstacle. It is simply the voice of God speaking to us through that undetectable and indefinable part of our selves called the conscience.
The spiritual (not necessarily religious) view of things is this: regardless of any proof of it being detectable through some digital gadget, that voice is real. It may usually be drowned out by all the other noise going on inside and outside the mind, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Cain and Adam and Eve and all the rest of those characters live on in every one of us. We still hear the question addressed to Adam, ‘Where are you?’ We still struggle to come up with an answer. We still hear the question addressed to Cain, ‘Where is your brother?’ We still either come up silent, or deny responsibility, or claim we didn’t realize the problem, or blame it on the other person for not taking responsibility. Or we run away.
This image, this voice, is Hashem ‘in there’. It is really there all the time, regardless of whether we have attained the status of a prophet. Cain was a murderer and he heard it. Adam hid from it and yet he still heard it. It wisps around the Garden at the end of the day, flitting among the trees, at times scaring us and at times lifting us up out of the blues. This voice is not the unfeeling and seemingly inflexible force of Fate or Destiny. It is as sensitive and as flexible as we are. Sometimes it is blatant and unforgiving - asking us, ‘What have you done?’ At others it is subtle and delicate, or joyous and enthusiastic, or even indifferent and bland. But it is always there. Listen.
There are lots of voices going on ‘in there’. Some may be malicious or destructive. But there are others that may be the true ‘Voice’. How is one supposed to tell the difference between the real thing and the cheap imitations?
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