The First Murder, Cain Killed Abel
By Avi Lazerson
Cain's killing his brother Abel is the first recorded murder in history. We all know this, but what is remarkable about this crime is the circumstances under which Cain killed his brother. If we check out the source, Genesis 4:1-15, we will see a remarkable story.
Eve gives birth first to Cain; later she gives birth to a second son, Abel. Abel became a shepherd and Cain became a farmer. Cain brought an offering to G-d from the fruit of his harvest. Abel brought from his first-born sheep. G-d accepted the offering of Abel, but not that of Cain. Cain was upset and G-d spoke to him explaining that his sin waits for him unless he repents. The next thing that happens is that Cain meets his brother in the field and kills him.
Now how are we supposed to accept that story as it is written? If we think about it just a moment, we discover the following deficiencies: First what was the rationale for Cain's killing of his brother Abel? Was he in competition with him to see whose sacrifice would be accepted? Was not each offering an individual sacrifice and therefore the chances of acceptance were not dependent upon a third party? If this is the case, what was the rationale in Cain's mind that he should kill his brother? His brother's sacrifice did not make his sacrifice better or worse.
If we were to examine the minds of Cain and Abel and their rationales for bringing their offerings we might be surprised. The Rabbis tell us that Cain brought inferior produce, while Abel brought from his best. Why? Since Cain did not have the rich legacy of the Torah to look into to understand what type of offering he should bring, we can pre-suppose that he felt that since G-d does not need any food, it is immaterial the quality of the offering. The main part of a sacrifice is the intent on the part of the man and not the content of the sacrifice.
We could also understand that Abel who saw Cain's offering reasoned differently. He believed that the intent is important, and that the sacrifice must be substantial in order that it may testify to the good intent of the person making the offering. Agreed, G-d does not need our offerings, but we show our intent by choosing the best offerings.
Following this scenario, it is still not understandable why Cain would choose to kill Abel. True, we can understand why he would be upset that his younger brother would upstage him, but what did killing him accomplish?
It appears that the Torah is telling us something much deeper about the nature of man. Whereas the acceptance of Cain's offering had little, if anything, to do with his brother, Cain seemed guilty of a mistake in judgement. He believed that the quality of the offering was not as important as the intent of the giver. He was wrong.
What would a rational and thinking person do? He would accept that there was an error in his judgement and make a new and proper offering! Cain however did what many people do in such situations. Instead of accepting the blame for his mistake, he shifted the guilt to someone else. Abel became the first scapegoat to be recorder in the world!
Does this seem far-fetched to you? Well, this is the case in so many lives. Whether at home or at work, or just in casual meetings, we see people casting blame on others for mistakes that happen and when things go wrong, they are unable to be accountable for their own personal error.
To go a bit deeper, Rabbainu Bechia, who lived some seven hundred years ago, sheds a bit of insight into our problem with this section of the Torah. He points out that the names Cain and Abel are indicative of the essence of two types of people. Cain, as the Torah points out, means "acquisition" in Hebrew. It is used in modern Hebrew in the verb form to purchase, "kinyan" or as a modern shopping mall is called a "kanyan" from the word "cain". His brother, Abel, is derived from the Hebrew word, "hevel" meaning steam, vanity or nonsense. King Solomon uses this word as he pronounces the machinations of this world to be "vanities of vanities" or "hevel hevelim".
Cain was the manifestation of the person to whom the physicality of this world is of utmost importance. Acquisitions and status is to them life. Abel was just the opposite; the physical was merely a transient stage. Abel had no difficulty in parting with his best animals; it had little attraction for him. He could eat from others; the physicality of the world had little hold upon him. Cain could not put the physical aspects of the world aside. To sacrifice the best to G-d who had no need for the best was a waste. Why should Cain suffer for no apparent reason?
Yet this was the reason that Cain was to become known as the first murderer recorded in the history of mankind. He was unable to look at the world as a transient and temporal abode whose pleasures are fleeting and not worthy of man's notice. True the material world is our reality, but compared to G-d, the reality of the world falls shallow.
Cain fell subservient to the physical side of life. His brother's success, which in reality had no bearing upon him, brought out that jealousy which is inherent in those who seek material superiority. Unable to contain his rage at his own failing, he vented his anger on Abel.
The message of the Torah is simple and clear. If we want to enjoy life and live properly, we must look beyond our physical and material aspects of life. We must realize that the acquisition of material abundance is in no way an acceptable substitute for a rich spiritual understanding of the purpose of being. Once we can accept with joy our neighbor's success, and admit to our own failures, there is nothing to prevent us from truly living life in its spiritual and physical best.
from the November 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine