The S'fat Emet, the second Gerer Rebbe (Reb Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1840-1906) says that the great joy of Simchat Torah is the act of beginning the Torah again. There's a warm glow each year when we return to those stories we know so well. So, it's with a special delight that I begin a new year of parsha musings. There's also a slightly unusual pleasure this year, because I'm actually getting to write about parshat Breishit. Many years there's no time between Simchat Torah and Brieshit to get out an article, but this year I've got the whole week to get my act together. So, here goes.
Breishit is an amazing Torah reading. There's so much going on; eons of history crammed into 146 verses. These are the verses which flame the evolution versus creationism debate, which I find silly because we don't learn science from the Bible. But it's the story of humans and their interactions which continue to astound and move me. The few individuals who people the world are so fascinating and their behavior so characteristic of our species that it's like reading Psychology Today. Let's quickly look at Adam and Eve. Their instruction to form a unit and build a family (Genesis 2:24) could have been the benediction at a wedding last week. However, it's their misunderstanding of marriage which is so poignant, tragic and, hopefully, cautionary. Eve knows she's alone without Adam, so she wants him to join her in sin. And even worse Adam can't own up to his responsibility so he blames Eve for his failure. It's like Failed Marriages 101. We can't have stable relationships if we're unstable. The blame game leads nowhere, and fast. The greatest drama, though, is the sibling rivalry of Cain and Abel.
As Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was inventing modern psychology he envisioned the greatest tensions vertically across generations from parent to child, as in the Oedipus Complex. The Torah views the supreme challenges horizontally, between spouses or siblings. Just to give one of many possible examples, the Torah and our traditional commentaries don't see the issues of Ya'akov and Yitzchak as father versus son. We envision that dysfunctional family as Ya'akov competing with his brother Esav and Rivkah disagreeing with her husband, Yitzchak. In this parsha we have no vertical conflict at all. We have no mention of any communication between parents and children at all. God asks Cain about Abel's whereabouts, but doesn't question the parents. Do Eve or Adam look into the matter or even mourn? We just don't know, and apparently it's not required for understanding the story.
The friction between Cain and Abel is the major controversy in the parsha, and Cain's failure to control his disappointment and jealousy is the central tragedy. Cain's state of turmoil results from the failure of his offering to be accepted by God. Why didn't God accept his sacrifice? We don't know. The speculation swirls around the fact that Abel's offering was from the first and choice of his flock while there is no mention of an attempt by Cain to give the best of his produce. Many commentaries praise shepherds over farmers, and explain that this is why all of our great leaders were shepherds. The verses are most concerned about Cain's agitation. Everyone fails at one time or another. The challenge of life is how to respond to the failure. Does the failure generate renewed resolve to succeed or despondence and debilitating depression? Cain gets stuck in a cycle of despair. God tries to intervene with words of advice, comfort and warning.
These words are central to understanding our story and, perhaps, the human situation. God says: "Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? Is it not so that if you improve, you will be forgiven? If you do not improve, however, at the opening, sin is crouching, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it (4:6 & 7)." God is stating that the proper response to failure is improved performance. Easier said than done. However, most of the traditional commentaries concentrate on the two warnings. The second warning is that there is a Yetzer Hara, evil tendency, which eternally stalks us. But it's first warning which I believe is more fascinating.
God tells Cain that sin is crouching at the opening ready to pounce upon us. There is great discussion over the identity of this opening. The two major candidates are the womb and the grave. Is the warning of eternal vigilance because sin is with us from our entrance into this realm? Or is the threat that un-forgiven sins will await us upon our departure from this world and admission into the world to come? There's truth to both. However, I personally like the approach of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etziyon in Gush Etziyon. The verse says: "Sin crouches at the door." But presumably not the same sin at every door. Each door, each domicile, each community with its particular sin, with a particular spiritual danger indigenous to it, endemic to that group or that individual. The Chafetz Chayim once commented that different generations have different pitfalls. There are generations that succumb particularly to idolatry, others to desecration of Shabbat, some to sins between man and his Maker, and others to interpersonal sins. Each community, each individual has his own "door" and his own sin to which he is susceptible. What might be regarded as the "sin that crouches at the door" of our community? Rabbi Lichtenstein suggest that modern Orthodoxy has a weakness for the sin of forgetfulness. We lose our focus on spirituality through our commitment to excellence in secular domain. But every individual must identify their particular weakness. Cain was prone to anger and violence, and the warning didn't work.
Here we have arrived at the center of this tragic tale. We fail even though we recognize the danger, in spite of the warning signs. If that weren't heartbreaking enough, God finishes the caution to Cain with the hopeful words, "yet you can overcome." Cain didn't have to crash. The failure wasn't inevitable. We begin this familiar chronicle again with the hope and promise that we can avoid its dreadful outcome. We read it again, because we see ourselves in it. We read it again to avoid becoming Cain.