parsha of the week

What Cain said is really not important


Chava bears two children, Kayin (Cain) and Hevel, and each takes on a profession. Time passes, Kayin brings an offering to G-d, and Hevel follows suit. Then the Torah describes these events:

G-d paid heed to Hevel and his offering but to Kayin and his offering, He paid no heed. Kayin became very furious and depressed. G-d said to Kayin, Why are you so furious? Why are you depressed? If you do good, will there not be special privilege? And if you do not do good, sin is crouching at the door. It lusts after you, but you can dominate it. Kayin said to Hevel, his brother. Then, when they happened to be in the field, Kayin rose up against Hevel his brother, and killed him.

It is important to never trust a translation. Look up these verses in their original Hebrew if you want to get the most out of the following ideas.

What did Kayin say to Hevel his brother? The Torah does not say. Rashi makes our lives simple by reporting that “there are midrashim about this, but essentially they got into an argument which came to blows.”

Ibn Ezra is a little more practical and says that a more appropriate translation would be “Kayin told Hevel, his brother” about his conversation with G-d. Toldot Yitzchak agrees, and says Kayin told him this to set the stage to kill Hevel deceptively. When a person “puts himself out there” by making a confession, the listener generally lets his guard down in empathy. Hevel was cautious of Kayin’s temper, but with Kayin’s confession he felt more comfortable.

Using the midrashic idea that Hevel was actually stronger than Kayin, the Vilna Gaon agrees that Kayin was a trickster, but also explains that what Kayin said was achiv, that he called Hevel “brother” in order to get Hevel to feel comfortable and relaxed. This explains why in the later verses, G-d says, “Where is Hevel your brother?” G-d, in essence, was saying, “Where is Hevel whom you have been calling ‘Brother?’ What happened to that relationship?”

Kli Yakar suggests Kayin was really rebuking Hevel, saying, “I am better than you. I was the first to give an offering to G-d. You only brought an offering because you saw I had offered one.”

Different midrashim suggest, as Rashi hints, that they may have argued over a number of things, including: division of the world — who will rule over this world versus who will rule over the world to come; on whose land will the Holy Temple one day be built; something relating to Chava; inheritance rights; or who would get to marry Hevel’s more beautiful twin.

Targum Yonatan explains the verse as a string of existential and philosophical arguments that ended with Kayin smashing Hevel’s head, killing him.

One of the most innovative explanations is offered by the Ktav V’Hakabalah, who suggests Kayin was responding to G-d’s question in verse 8. The world “el,” that until now we have translated as “to,” can also be translated as “bishvil,” meaning “on account of.” In other words, in response to G-d’s “Why are you sad?” he responded, “on account of Hevel his brother.”

Finally, the Shakh says the Torah deliberately left out what Kayin said out of respect for the firstborn. Certainly whatever they argued about was petty and Kayin’s words — either a cheap shot or a silly argument — are unnecessary to record for posterity. It is bad enough that the murder is recorded; let it stand as it is.

I agree with the Shakh that if indeed Kayin did say something to Hevel, the specific words are not necessary to be recorded. Most arguments that take place between family members could probably be avoided, and often begin over very petty things. We allow ourselves to get upset with family, and we excuse behavior that would not be tolerated anywhere else, thinking “It is my family member. Surely I will be forgiven and the incident will be forgotten later. We love each other anyway, no matter what.”

While members of our community are not likely to commit actual murder on account of disputes, verbal and emotional fights can wage on for weeks, months, years, decades, and even across generations. If you don’t want to be someone’s friend anymore, that is one discussion, but when these fights take place within a family, it is heartbreaking.

Is it really worth it?

If you are the one who said the wrong thing once (or many times), apologize already. Own up. And if you are the one who was on the receiving end of abusive or hurtful language, hopefully when that phone call comes, you will have the wherewithal to accept the apology, forgive and move on.

The story of Cain and Abel need not continue.

A version of this column appeared in 2009.