Parsha Bereshit "Personal Choices" October 25, 2008/26 Tishrei 5769 Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum, PhD
Do you remember the Alfred Hitchcock classic horror movie - Psycho? Do you remember the beautiful scene at the beginning of the film? Just before being horrified by the signature shower curtain brutality, we are first treated to an idyllic scene, a lovely quiet farmhouse surrounded by beautiful country, lush trees, just a charming little backwoods town. Maybe you’ve heard the expression, "You never know what goes on behind closed curtains." That certainly describes what went on at the Bates Motel in the movie and sets up our discussion for today.
Now imagine the great feeling reading about the Biblical Genesis. What could be more ideal and pristine than the very beginning. Creation at the very core. Everything is fresh and new. Colorful flowers, fully blossomed trees, crispy ripe vegetables, happy, scampering animals, clear skies, crystal waters, bright sunshine. Postcard perfect, right? Keep reading! Look further. First there’s the serpent’s deception with Adam and Eve. Then Cain kills his brother Abel. Yet again, like in the movie Psycho we are exposed to another inscrutable, catastrophic and tragic ending. Additionally, at the end of the Parsha, G-d decides to destroy everything just created and we have the story of Noah and the Great Flood.
Why can’t it always be as good as we see it? Just when we become complacent and get a little comfortable, it seems that’s the time the other shoe falls. What could be more of a paradise than Paradise itself; The Garden of Eden? Yet Cain raises himself up in anger against his brother. What caused Cain to kill his brother Abel? Was this simply a story of sibling rivalry? Two wealthy brothers wrought with jealousy? G-d bestows Abel with the gift of livestock and to his brother Cain; he gives fertile ground to till. Both bring an offering to G-d. Cain takes the left over fruits from his crops and brings an impressive lot as his offering. However, Abel takes as his offering the best of his livestock to the Almighty. In return, G-d rewards Abel for his selflessness and punishes Cain for his selfishness.
You know the rest of the story. G-d accepts Abel’s donation with pleasure, but rejects Cain’s scraps. Cain becomes exceedingly annoyed. G-d asks Cain, "Why are you so angry...if you improve yourself, I’ll accept you as well." Cain’s intent was to pacify G-d with his donation, to control the situation, control G-d. Maybe he was thinking that his earthly goods would be "good enough" to manipulate G-d’s reaction. G-d doesn’t want "mediocrity" he expects better, he expects "greatness."
I have been a witness to this type of mediocre donating during my years as a Rabbi. I am often called to the estate of a deceased person by their well-meaning heirs. "Rabbi," they ask, "I would like to make a donation for someone in need. Maybe you know someone who wants some slightly used clothing, shoes, furniture, linens…" Because I believe in the goodness of humanity, I usually accept these invitations. However, it is not uncommon that I approach a very comfortable and well-maintained home only to be handed a black garbage bag filled with scuffed shoes, stained or faded clothing, partially broken appliances and worse, smelling of basement mildew. These are insulting donations, like Cain’s leftovers, thoughtlessly given with little commitment or sensitivity.
Once in a while, I am very pleased when the donation is made with a full heart and am entrusted with a seriously considerate donation like a complete set of fine china, hand-crafted furniture, beautiful Shabbat candles, the best of an estate, like Abel’s livestock, showing deep appreciation. The recipients of these donations are so appreciative because they know the donor has given with a full heart and I am pleased to be the intermediary of such gifts.
Cain had a condescending attitude. Cain, in denial, deflected his materialistic hoarding tendencies onto others. As a result, he felt frustrated, because he thought he would be able to control everything, including G-d. Cain’s behavior reflects the very worst destructive tendencies in humanity. Cain knows full well that his actions are inadequate and insulting. Instead of taking responsibility for his actions, he projects his anger on his brother. Modern-day psychiatrists might use the term "puerilism" to describe such childish behavior in an adult.
In Ethics of the Fathers, it is written, "One sin leads to another sin". Instead of learning from his mistakes and making a corrective change, Cain decides to kill his brother. Now, I’m not saying that sibling rivalry will always result in such a tragedy, but I am saying that we should all examine our relationships so that we create harmony between our brothers and sisters. Keep jealousy in check. Keep egos in line. If your sister is living a high and privileged life and you are economically challenged, don’t hate her. Find a way to improve your own life without begrudging her. If your brother is driving the car of your dreams, congratulate him on his hard work. Find something in your life that brings you happiness as well. Create new dreams. On the other hand, if you have been blessed with fortune, be sensitive to those around you who may not be so. Increase your Tzedaka to help those in need. Offer assistance to a family member you know may be too modest or embarrassed to ask. Deep jealousy and large egos can destroy relationships, even in the midst of Paradise. The Midrash describes monstrous cruelty in the murdering of Abel by Cain. He took a stone and knocked his brother’s head to bloody pieces, then vandalized the remains of the body. Here amidst the serene Garden of Eden, we are exposed to the dark, evil side of human behavior. Keep in mind that this occurred before the birth of Abraham, the first Jew.
Cain’s legacy to the world was committing the first and the forefather murder, genocide. Cain’s version of the final resolution. I recently read one of Dr. Martin Gilbert’s several books about the Holocaust. Dr. Gilbert is a world-renowned historian and a fellow of Merton College, Oxford. His book is one of the best ever written on the subject of the Holocaust because he analyzed it from an academic point of view, backing up everything with statistics and research. He writes that just because we conveniently classify these monsters and gives them a name like Nazi; it doesn’t absolve them of their true identities. After all, he claims, it was the German people who carried out these atrocities against fellow human beings. They deliberately separated out anyone that was not consider part of the Aryan, elite race and savagely murdered men, women, and children with a full heart. The Germans, packaged neatly in a Nazi uniform, believed the Jews were deserving of death. Furthermore, Gilbert points out that this was the common belief of the educated, civilized, well-bred, sophisticated and intellectual society of Germany. There is no doubt that the Germans, specifically the Nazis, were for the most part well-educated and steeped in the fine arts, especially in music and opera. As a matter of fact, Gilbert states that approximately one-third of Nazi officers held doctoral degrees. 1/3!!!!
Nonetheless, clothed with all this sophistication and culture didn’t stop these murderers from creating the Nuremberg Laws, laying the pathway for the eventual destruction of a Jewish nation that lived side by side, neighbor among neighbor. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. Again, another example of not knowing what lies behind closed curtains, a modern day Cain.
Still, we must remember that the real focus remains on the ego, that part of one’s self that allows for feelings of superiority. When G-d approached Cain and asked him, "Where is Abel your brother?" Cain had the option to confess his sin, but chose instead to hide it from G-d. Surely, Cain knew that his own parents, Adam and Eve had once sinned before G-d but ultimately confessed and were given the opportunity to do Teshuva and atone. Cain apparently followed the same behavior patterns of his parents. Cain was unscrupulous. He thought that he would be able to influence G-d, that his greed and self-centeredness would be overlooked. That he would be able to fool G-d. Basically, he did not want to share his bounty, so he donated his leftovers. Because his brother Abel played by G-d’s rules, G-d favored him, causing Cain to be jealous. How differently history might have been if Cain opted to change his behavior, swallow his pride and listened to G-d’s instructions. If only Cain had followed in his brothers footsteps and learned to donate, to give benevolently and philanthropically. Imagine where we might be today had Cain believed that "one mitzvah leads to another."
It is important to note that when we describe teshuva, repentance, we are not just talking about saying "I’m sorry" or "I know I did wrong." In Christian thought, confession is the end of the story, but not so in Jewish thought. That’s only the first step. On Yom Kippur we confess our sins and resolve to change. Without an active change, the confession itself, no matter how hard we tap at our hearts, is meaningless.
Several days ago, we read the last chapter of the Torah. The last sentence describes Moses, the Jewish leader, transmitting G-d’s teachings and the second version of the Ten Commandments. Three thousand years later, these teachings are still applicable to our lives. They are eternal in their message. We believe that if the Torah did not say "Thou shall not murder" then by nature man is a murderer. If the Torah did not say "thou shall not commit adultery", then by nature, man is an adulterer. If the Torah did not command "Thou shall not steal", then again, by nature man is a thief. We have the Torah to guide us. It is called the blueprint for living, the tree of life, giving us the roots to keep us deeply grounded while allowing us to reach higher and higher.
So, in very simple terms, we learn that by keeping control of our ego and following G-d’s teachings, we can avoid a lot of heartache, mistakes and sadness. We are responsible for the consequences of our choices and our actions.
May we learn the lessons of our ancestors improve our own choices for the sake of humanity and appreciate the blessings that we have been given by the Almighty. Let us thank G-d with a full heart for the bounty he has bestowed upon us and reciprocate by giving back our best, through acts of loving-kindness. As partners in creation with G-d, may we continue to bring goodness and holiness to the world. Amen.