The First Argument

by Rav Ari Kahn:Bereishit(Genesis 1:1-6:8)

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. [Genesis 1:1]

The Torah begins with a description of the unfolding of events at the dawn of history. It has long been the understanding of the Rabbis that, as important as the literal meaning of the text may be, the primary importance of the Torah lies in its theological teachings. The Torah is a book of theological truth which is the word of God, and, therefore, historically accurate as well. The Rabbis interpreting the Torah in the Talmud, Midrash, and the Zohar, the chief work of the Kabbalah, were well aware of this idea. Consequently, verses which may seem mundane or simplistic to the uninitiated often contain the most profound teachings and secrets of the Torah.

Examining this Torah portion, the Midrash makes an inference, not from what is said, but by noting what is missing. After each day of creation God declares that “it was good,” except for the second day. Why?

“R’Yochanan explained in the name of R’Yose ben R’Halafta: Because on this day Gehenna (Hell) was created. R’Hanina said: Because on this day schism came into the world, as it is written, And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters …” [Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 4:6]

The Midrash teaches that this act of separation is the power which allows for dissension to enter into the world. However, readers familiar with the text will note that the term VAYAVDIL, “to separate,” was used on the first day as well, when God separated between light and darkness. Why, then, is the power of dissension only expressed on the second day?

Apparently, argumentation can only take place when two things or two people do not have clearly-defined boundaries. The separation between light and darkness is absolute — they are opposites, and therefore no dissension follows their separation. However, the separation between water and water, which are ostensibly the same, is where the power of dissent originates. God separated the higher waters from the lower waters, water from water, like from like. And in this act of the second day dissension was created.

This Midrash serves as an introduction to one of the most tragic events described in the Book of Genesis. Chapter 4 records the birth of Cain and Abel, their difference of opinion, and finally the tragic murder of Abel.

And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bore Cain, and said, ‘I have acquired a man from the Lord’. And she again bore his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. [Genesis 4:1-2]

These two verses lack symmetry. When Cain is born, his name is immediately explained. He is a gift from God, perhaps seen as an agent in the mending of the relationship between God and Eve that had become dysfunctional since the eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. When Abel is born, no reason is given for the choice of his name. In Hebrew, Abel, HEVEL, means “nothingness.” It seems that from the outset, Abel doesn’t count, he is simply the brother of Cain.

And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. [Genesis 4:2]

Cain becomes a farmer. As per the rules of exile, he is following God’s commandment to work the cursed earth “by the sweat of his brow.” Abel, however, becomes a keeper of sheep; he seems to be ignoring the rules of exile and trying to relate to God in the way his father did in the Garden of Eden, where Adam was given the task to be the keeper of the animals.

The Midrash tells us something interesting about the births of Cain and Abel. Cain, we are told, was born with a twin sister; Abel, however, was born along with two sisters. [Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 22:2)

Perhaps this is the origin of the friction between Cain and Abel. Cain is the older brother, the “golden child.” The hopes and aspirations of Eve rest upon him. So why, Cain asks, did God give Abel a larger portion of sisters? After all, we should be treated equally, but if anyone were to receive a double share, it should have the first born.

This sets the stage for the rest of the Book of Genesis, where the younger brother consistently achieves superiority over the older brother who inevitably fails.

Initially Cain sets about his task, works the land and brings an offering of some fruit to God. Abel, too, offers from his flock, sacrificing the best of them.

And the Lord had respect for Abel and for his offering. But for Cain and for his offering he did not have respect. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry and why is your countenance fallen? If you do well, shall you not be accepted? And if you do not well, sin lies at the door. And to you shall be his desire, and yet you may rule over him. [Genesis 4:4-7]

Cain repeatedly compares himself with his brother Abel, and finds himself on the short end of the stick. In so doing, he defines himself in terms of his relationship with his brother. He judges his accomplishments by comparing them with his brother’s. When Cain sees that he has not been as successful as Abel, he becomes bitter, angry and depressed. Cain’s problem was that he assumed that he and his brother were the same and were, therefore, deserving of equal opportunities and success. This reminds us of the second day of creation when God separated between the waters. When two things are assumed to be equal, dissension follows.

And Cain talked with 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. [Genesis 4:8]

Again there is a lack of symmetry. Cain speaks to Abel. (We do not know what he said.) Abel does not answer. Abel is apparently not involved in this argument; it is one-sided. At this point, Cain is overwhelmed by rage and murders his brother.

And the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ And he said, ‘I know not; Am I my brother’s keeper?’ And He said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened her mouth to swallow your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall not henceforth yield to you her strength; a fugitive and a wanderer shall you be in the earth. [Genesis 4:9-12]

The earth had already been cursed once — when Adam was expelled from the Garden of Eden — and now it is cursed again because it swallowed the blood of Abel. While Adam had to work the earth by the sweat of his brow and in sorrow eat of its produce, Cain, the next tiller of soil, will get nothing from it; all he can do is wander the barrenness, finding no respite.

The tragic end to the relationship between Cain and Abel unleashed the spiritual power for other arguments that will take place in the future. One such argument related in the Torah, in the Book of Numbers — between Korach and Moses — strikes us with its stunning parallels:

And they [Korach and his followers] gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, ‘You have taken too much upon yourselves, since the entire congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you lift up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?’ [Numbers 16:3]

Korach, the leader of the revolt, was a populist. He had an attractive philosophy which he conveyed to the masses. Korach claimed that all people are equally holy, therefore all people should be treated the same, with the same rights and opportunities. Of course, Korach’s argument was the same as Cain’s.

The end that God chose for the Korach rebellion is filled with irony:

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses and all the people belonging to Korach and all of their possessions. [Numbers 16:32]

The last time — and the only other time — that the Torah used that phrasing was in reference to Abel when the earth “opened its mouth to swallow” the blood of the murdered brother. [Genesis 4:11]

The mystics, based on a tradition from the great 15th century Kabbalist Ariza’l have a very elegant explanation for these similarities — they teach that Korach was a reincarnation of the soul of Cain. [Shaar Hagiligulim Hakdama 33; also see the Shem MiShmuel in Parshat Korach]

But there are other similarities in the Cain/Abel and Korach/Moses stories:

Abel’s name meant “nothingness.” We are told that Moses was the most modest of men. We may assume that Moses, like Abel, did not think too much of himself. His leadership position was not attained through political maneuvering; he was given it directly by God and tried to decline.

When Cain argued with Abel, Abel did not respond. Similarly, the Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” describes the argument of Korach as “the argument of Korach and his followers,” not as the argument between Moses and Korach. [Avot 5:17]

Moses was aware of the uniqueness of each individual; Korach tried to blur the differences between people.

It is one of the profound teachings of Judaism, that not all people are created equal. Each person certainly has an inalienable right to his or her dignity, but not all people possess equal roles and destinies.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik illustrated this idea with an insight regarding the quintessential statement of Jewish monotheism, the SH’MA: “Listen Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One.” Rabbi Soloveitchik commented that he would prefer to translate the Hebrew word ehad not as “one” but as “unique.” Jewish monotheism does not differ from polytheism purely in numeric terms — a belief in one God vs. many. The declaration implied in the SH’MA is that God is unique. Man is created in the image of God, which means that each and every human being is unique as well. The challenge of life is to find our uniqueness and develop it, not to define ourselves in comparison with others, but to search within ourselves and find our uniqueness, our image of God.

Indeed, when the Torah commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, we can ask, “How can one possibly love others”? The secret of loving others is in discovering their uniqueness and appreciating it. A mother loves all her children, for she appreciates the uniqueness of each child. We are commanded to find the uniqueness in each person and to love them for it.

When a person identifies his own uniqueness and develops that uniqueness, he truly manifests the image of God within himself. And then he can love others in the same way. Therein lies the mistake of Cain. He could not see his own uniqueness. He could not appreciate his brother’s niqueness. He did not know the meaning of brotherhood.

On the other hand, the behavior of Moses from earliest adulthood illustrates the opposite attitude.

And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens; and he spied an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brothers. [Exodus 2:11]

He goes out to his brothers to see their suffering. Not withstanding that he is the prince of Egypt, he identifies with the plight of the slaves. He responds to the sense of brotherhood he feels between himself and the Jews.

And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand. [Exodus 2:12]

Moses kills a man but his act is profoundly different from the act of Cain. Cain’s act was a murder resulting from jealousy of his brother. Moses was acting to protect his brother.

The Ariz’al explains all these similarities and parallels — the soul of Abel was reincarnated in Moses. And thus we come to find the first two brothers in the Torah who really, truly, related to one another with love and respect — Moses and his brother Aaron.

And the Lord said to Aaron, ‘Go into the wilderness to meet Moses. And he went, and met him in the mount of God, and kissed him. [Exodus 4:27]

The Midrash stresses the importance of this kiss:

“When it says: ‘Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other'[Psalms 85:11] mercy refers to Aaron … while truth refers to Moses … Righteousness refers to Moses, of whom it is said: ‘He executed the righteousness of the Lord’ [Deuteronomy 33:21], and peace refers to Aaron, of whom it says: ‘He walked with Me in peace and uprightness’ [Malachi 2:6] Rightousness and peace have kissed each other, as it says, … ‘And he [Aaron] kissed him [Moses].’ Why? Each one rejoiced at the other’s greatness.” [Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 5:10]

Throughout the Book of Genesis, we do not find harmony among brothers. The unity of these two brothers, Moses and Aaron, is what enables them to lead the people out of Egypt and to bring them to Mt. Sinai to accept the Torah. In order to leave Egypt the children of Israel had first to become a nation. In order to receive the Torah they needed unity. The core of this unity was the love and mutual respect exhibited between Moses and Aaron. “Each one rejoiced at the other’s greatness.” Each appreciated the greatness and uniqueness of the other as Cain and Abel never did.

This entry was posted in Beginner and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The First Argument

  1. Bereishit(Genesis 1:1-6:8)
    Blame Game
    by Adam Leiberman

    While living in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were told by God that they can freely eat and enjoy everything the Garden had to offer. They just couldn’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. A serpent came along and enticed Eve to eat fruit from this tree. After she ate from the tree, she gave some of its fruit to Adam. When God confronted Adam and Eve about their blatant disregard for His instructions….

    “The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me – she gave me of the tree, and I ate.’ The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’ ”

    * * *


    When people do something wrong, they usually have an instinctive reaction to either defend their actions or blame someone or something else for what they did.

    So when God asked Adam why he ate from the tree, the first thing Adam did was go on the offensive, saying that he ate from the tree because of “the woman whom you gave to be with me…” According to Adam, his sin wasn’t a result of his choices; it was because of a something that God did.

    And when Eve was confronted about her actions, she also refused to take any responsibility for her free-will decision, and instead simply said, “The serpent deceived me…” Adam and Eve were punished by God not only for not listening to Him, but for also immediately casting blame for their actions elsewhere.

    It’s always easier, more convenient, and far less embarrassing to shift blame onto other people, circumstances, or to society for any negative or destructive decisions and actions we might make. Clearly, this isn’t what God wants. Rather, he desires us to personally take complete and full ownership over everything that we do.

    The reason for this is that there’s nothing more empowering and liberating than personally taking true responsibility for all your actions. This is life-changing because you now have power to “choose and become” as opposed to being stuck in the “blame game.” Power to choose right from wrong. Good or bad. Action or inaction. You will never again be a victim of circumstances, but rather will become a proactive decision maker who – through making the right choices – can recreate him/herself anew every day.

    This isn’t easy to do because it goes against our nature to immediately declare “I was wrong.” But when you can truly acknowledge to yourself that it’s you – and you alone – who’s responsible for whatever you do – and not anyone or anything else – then you will have taken complete and total control of your life. And when you take full responsibility for everything you ever do, then you’ll have recaptured ownership of your life and with God’s help you can do and become anything you’ve ever dreamed possible.

  2. Parshas Bereishis
    The Illusion of Nothingness
    By Rav Label Lam

    In the beginning G-d made the heavens and the earth and the earth was void and astonishingly empty and darkness was on the face of the deep and the spirit of G-d was hovering over the face of the water. And G-d said, “Let there be light!” and there was light! (Breishis 1:1-3)

    What’s wrong with this picture? If you’re reading the “Bible” in English perhaps everything is hunky dory. However if one is learning Torah in the original Holy Language then problems begin to percolate all over the place. A case in point: What was created first? According to the translation above you would be correct to guess; “heaven and earth”. Upon careful examination Rashi informs us that that is not the intent of the verse to tell us ‘what was created first’. So what was created first!

    First of all the word “Breishis” is a compound word. The letter “Beis” at the beginning can be translated, “for” or “in” hence the misleading reading “In the beginning G-d created…” Rashi goes on to explain that the second part of that first word – “Reishis” is always used in connection to another word that follows. It does not mean “In the beginning” but rather “In the beginning of- G-d creating the heaven the earth and the earth was void and empty…” If the Torah was a cosmology book that wanted to teach chronology then the first word should have been “B’rishona” –“At first”. “Breishis” is something entirely different altogether.

    Just as a point of curiosity, what was created first? Here comes the surprising answer! Why does the Torah start with the letter “Beis”. Every school child knows that the first letter in the “Aleph –Beis” is Beis! Why start with the second letter, and large version of the letter Beis to boot!? It’s interesting to note that the dominant theory at the end of the 20th century explaining how the universe came to be is known as the “Big Bang” theory! Prior to that the preeminent premise was a “static state” notion that everything always was the way it is! Hmmm! After detecting hints of expanding universe that new assumption is that everything started from a singular dense point of “whatever” that exploded forming the stuff of the world. This is more in agreement with what we have always understood. We have might call it “The Big Beis Theory”. History has both a start and a direction!

    I asked scientists at NASA if anyone has a slight idea or a theory or a hint about what may have preceded the “Big Bang” and the answer was unanimously “no”. What preceded the Beis of Breishsis? Guess! You got it! The ALEF of “Adon Olam asher Malach b’terem kol y’tzir nivra- He was Master of the world that ruled before anything was created! What predated the creation of the world was HASHEM Whose name is a contraction of three terms “He was, is, and will be” and is essentially beyond the boundaries of time.

    Imagine an ocean of endless light, what the Zohar calls “Ohr Ain Sof”. We cannot call it infinity because it’s beyond our ken but rather what’s it’s not “light without end”! Now imagine in the middle of that ocean of endless light a dark bubble is created through the seeming withdrawal of the light. That dark empty space becomes the arena the stage for the drama that will be creation and human history. The Tanya quotes the Zohar in stating that although the physical world was created “something from nothing” in actuality it was created “nothing from something”! HASHEM is enduring existence while everything in the physical world has a “half-life”, an expiration date if you will. WOW! Now we can go back to our original question! What was created first? The answer, based on the first verse is not heaven and earth, but the “big void” via the withdrawal of obvious Divine presence and hence the illusion of nothingness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *