Friday, October 24, 2008

Out In The Cold:
A Bereishit ShulDrasha

(complete with visual aids!)

There's a Holocaust poem by Dan Pagis
called “Written in Pencil Inside the Sealed Boxcar” —
in translation, it goes:
Here in this transport
I am Eve
With Abel my son
If you see my older son
Cain son of Adam
Tell him that I

This is a book called “Ishmael”
by Daniel Quinn.
A philosophical novel
in the form of a conversation
between the narrator
and a gorilla,
it uses the story of Cain and Abel
to categorize human societies
into ‘Leavers’
who live in harmony with nature
and ‘Takers’
who do not.

And this is a source book
for a fantasy role-playing game
where vampires believe
that they are descended from “Caine
and that eternal night-time bloodsucking
was his curse and punishment from God.

And it's not like the game-designers
came up with that idea themselves —
a thousand years earlier,
the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf
features a monster named Grendel —
also identified, along with all monsters,
as a descendent of Cain.

What is it about the story
of Cain and Abel —
קין and הבל —
that intrigues us?

What is it about קין
that after he killed his brother
and was sent into Wandering by God,
his image continues to stalk us
down through the centuries?

How can we explain
the persistence
the power
of קין
in our cultural consciousness?

One answer might be
that קין is Inhuman;
that he represents the very edge
of what it means
to be a human being.

The very first comment of רש"י
on the story of קין and הבל
makes a very significant grammatical point —
the first phrase of the story
והאדם ידע את חוה אשתו
“the man ‘knew’ Hhava his wife”
doesn't mean and then he knew her, in chronological sequence,
after the just-finished story of the Garden;
it means he had already known her.
Already before the previous story
before the story
of אדם and חוה's expulsion from the Garden.
And then רש"י goes on to lay out the logical implication:
that not only did the ‘knowing’, the conception,
occur in the Garden, in גן עדן before the sin —
so did the pregnancy and birth that followed.

קין was born in the Garden.

קין was born inside the Garden of עדן.

קין was there
when his mother was enticed to eat the fruit.
קין was there
when his father was enticed to eat the fruit.

קין was there, the whole time,
in the Garden —
but we're never told
that he ate the fruit, too.

אדם ate the fruit.
חוה ate the fruit.
But קין never ate the fruit
of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

And yet
he suffered the consequences.

Together with his parents,
קין was thrown out of the Garden.
Together with his parents,
he was kicked out of Paradise
onto the cold hard ground
of a Frightening New World —
ground which would only grudgingly
give up its grain.
The ground was cursed by אדם's sin;
it would only bring forth קוץ ודרדר,
thorns and thistles,
no matter how much he worked.

אדם and חוה were expelled from Paradise
for eating the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
And outside the Garden,
they produced הבל
קין's younger brother.
הבל, outside the Garden, was born with Knowledge in his blood.
And that very Knowledge which got them
tossed out into the cold
was the tool with which
they could transcend their situation and transform their world.

In fact, there are מדרשים
that describe how that first night outside the Garden
אדם knocked two stones together,
discovering fire,
and thanked God
for the solace of light
amidst the darkness.

The earth was cursed —
it would no longer cooperate
to support human life.
הבל understood that.
He knew that he would have to find
some new way to survive.
ויהי הבל רועה צאן
So הבל became a shepherd.
He created something new in the world.

וקין היה עובד אדמה
But קין was already (same grammatical form!) a worker of the land.
A farmer.
An agriculturalist.
He didn't understand
that to the rivers of Eden
there is no returning.
He didn't understand
that the soil was cursed.
He didn't have the knowledge,
the understanding,
that it was time to let go;
time to adapt to the new world.

אדם had originally been put in the Garden
לעבדה ולשמרה
to work it and to guard it.
אדם ate the fruit.
אדם knew that the Garden was over, although he personally was cursed to keep working.

But קין couldn't understand —
God had told them to work the land,
and so that's exactly what he's gonna do!

הבל moved on.
הבל adapted.
הבל was creative.
And הבל succeeded where קין failed — after all, God accepted his offering!
There's a saying that
is doing the same thing
over and over again
and expecting a different result
each time.”
קין failed and faltered.
He didn't understand
why the earth wouldn't
give him its produce.
And so קין became
and lashed out.
And killed his brother.

קין represents
the almost-human —
between ignorance and understanding;
at the same time
stuck in Paradise
and living in a broken world;
unable to adapt
and unable to meaningfully create;
able only to lash out.

קין didn't even understand
what it meant to live in this new world —
how could he have possibly known
what Death was,
until he created it
with his own hands?!

And yet
on the other hand,
קין is more than human.
קין is Everyman.
קין is universal.

There's a מדרש in בראשית רבה
that records a מחלוקת
a disagreement
between a number of our sages
as to what exactly
קין and הבל were fighting about
before קין killed his brother.

My brother
likes to call this
the Marx-Hitchens-Freud Midrash —
because, as the midrash lists the opinions,
one rabbi claims
that קין and הבל were arguing over Property;
another claims
that they were arguing over the location of the Temple;
while others listed there say
that they were fighting over a Woman.

Marx, Hitchens, and Freud:
Wealth, Religion, and Sex.
The three ultimate sources
of conflict in human society,
as identified by thinkers of our own time —
those are the exact
points of contention
identified by חז"ל, by our sages,
as the trigger
that led to the first murder.
This מדרש is teaching us
that the struggle between קין and הבל
was universal.

And so
if קין represents
universal human concerns...
he must not be so Inhuman
after all.

So what is it?
What is this line across which קין hops back and forth, this line
between the human
and the inhuman?
Between the Garden
and the Real World?

There are many different interpretations
of what the story of אדם, חוה and the Fruit
is trying to teach us.
Here is just one possibility.

What makes us human
is Creativity.

And the Knowledge
that all of us were born with —
the Knowledge that הבל was born with,
but that קין lacked —
is the ability to move on;
to deal with adversity;
to adapt;
to overcome obstacles;
to take that Creativity
and apply it
to improve ourselves, our situation,
and our world.

הבל understood
that he was cut off from the ground.
And so instead of trying
to domesticate plants,
(’cause the plants weren't going to listen to him)
he domesticated animals.
He created something new in the world.
הבל became a shepherd.

And then the brothers got into a fight,
קין killed הבל,
and קין was confronted by God.

And when God punishes קין,
and banishes him
not just from Eden
but from any connection to the soil whatsoever,
קין finally gets it.

גֵּרַשְׁתָּ אוֹתִי הַיּוֹם מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה
“You've driven me off the surface of the earth!”
That's how קין responds to God —
he finally understands!
This whole time,
קין was following a dead-end path.
But only now
does he finally realize
that he's hit the end of the road.

There's nowhere left to go —
except to blaze a new trail.
And so
our man of the land
our stubborn farmer...
moves to the big city. He becomes a בונה עיר, a city-builder.
And he names his city חנוך
after his son.
קין finally sees a future for himself and his children —
and having already created death,
he now creates a new way of life.
קין learned his lesson.

And he seems to have learned it pretty well,
because the next time the Torah
gives us any details whatsoever about his descendents,
קין's grandson's great-grandchildren
are revolutionizing human civilization!
יבל reinvents the life of the nomadic herder
(that was cut short by the murder of הבל);
יובל invents music, and musical instruments;
and תובל־קין (my favorite minor figure in תנ"ך) invents metallurgy, and metal tools.

They are human;
they are us;
they bring new things into the world.

In the Babylonian Talmud
מסכת סוטה,
רִבִּי חמא ברבי חנינא
explains that there is an obligation
to “walk in God's ways”
and he brings four examples —
God clothed the naked
by אדם and חוה.
God visited the sick
by אברהם.
God comforted mourners
by יצחק.
And God buried the dead
by משה.
These four activities
are acts of חסד —
acts of kindness.
And remember, these are obligations!
Just as God visited the sick,
so must we visit the sick;
and just as God comforted mourners,
so must we comfort mourners.
But perhaps
the greatest act of חסד
was Creation itself.
And so
we can say, in the spirit of רבי חמא ברבי חנינא —
just as God created the universe,
so must we create worlds.

What makes us human
is the ability
to create and adapt;
to struggle and win,
or to struggle, lose, recover, and move on.
Adam and Eve
were too smart for Eden;
they ate the fruit,
they learned how to change and create —
but there's nothing to create
(nothing that needs to be improved)
in Paradise.

And so, on the outside,
in the cold hard world,
אדם and חוה and הבל
and even קין, in the end,
learned to survive
by walking in the footsteps of God,
the One Who Spoke The World Into Being.

And as we will do tonight,
at the end of שבת —
the first thing that אדם created,
as the מדרשים teach us,
was Fire
to light the darkness
and drive away the cold.

But it's still a cold hard world out there.
And it's still our job to make it warm.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice, but I don't know if I'd describe Rashi's comment as a grammatical one. It seems to be more of a midrashic comment, appended to an item of grammar. In actuality, והאדם ידע can mean the same as וידע האדם. An example of this would be in Gen 1:5b - ולחשך קרא לילה, which has the same (verbal) grammatical import as the first half of that verse - ויקרא, etc.

My version of Miqra'ot Gedolot references Ber.Rab. 22:2, but they don't seem to make the same point over there as Rashi at all... Do you have it on hand? Any idea why Miqra'ot Gedolot quotes it?

10/26/2008 1:56 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

It can also be used for pluperfect — see a reference here.

Ber.Rab. 22:2 doesn't agree with my thesis here — it claims that Qayin and Hevel (and their sisters) were all born from the same pregnancy.

10/26/2008 3:06 PM  
Blogger Daniel Saunders said...

Nice drasha. I had heard about Cain being born in Eden before, but I never thought through the implications of that.

10/26/2008 3:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's precisely why I was confused... My Miqra'ot Gedolot brings Rashi on this verse, and then references Ber.Rab. It looks as though they are saying something very different to Rashi too.

Thanks for the link: I was not aware of anybody supposing such a thing. I'll look more into it.

10/26/2008 6:55 PM  
Blogger Aharonium said...

This drash might also help explain why the daughters of Cain were so attractive to the Nephilim (Gen 6:1-4) according to Sefer Chanoch (Book of Enoch), Jublees, and the Midrash of Azazel and Shemhazai. According to those traditions, the descended/fallen angels taught mankind all manner of knowledge including astrology and cosmetology. But the consequence of this knowledge is interpreted via the midrashim as corrupting and evil. The chosen lineage descends instead through Seth. It's important to note that even within gnostic Sethian traditions, there's also a parallel gnostic Cainite tradition that holds Cain in high esteem, (for after all, "on the basis that by creating murder Cain allowed men to deny it" -- wikipedia on the Cainites). Note Gella Solomon's drash on Cain from last year ( and comment:

10/29/2008 10:48 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

wow, interesting ideas, Aharon!
including the links!

10/29/2008 9:37 PM  
Blogger thanbo said...

a veritable Milton of free verse.

(Free verse! Play Free Verse!)

11/18/2008 11:41 AM  
Blogger beverly said...

beautiful post!

11/18/2008 2:55 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Daniel, Thanbo and Beverly:


("freeverse" GROAN) :-P

11/18/2008 6:04 PM  

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