Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Torah Commentary

Bereshit Chapter 4

1Now the man had known his wife Eve, and she conceived and born Cain, saying, “I have acquired a man with Hashem.” 2And additionally she bore his brother Abel. Abel became a shepherd, and Cain became a tiller of the ground.

Thus the first children were born. One of them became raiser of sheep and the other a farmer. The passage “I have acquired a man with Hashem” is not clear though allusions similar to Christianity’s claim of Jesus being the product of God and Mary come to mind.

This passage also implies that Man, from the beginning had the ability to farm and to domesticate animals. Needless to say, this idea is at odds with the conventional wisdom as well as common sense. It is widely believed that humans evolved the ability to farm – they did not have this capacity innately.

3After a period of time, Cain brought an offering to Hashem of the fruit of the ground; 4and as for Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of the flock and from their choicest. Hashem turned to Abel and to his offering, 5but to Cain and to his offering He did not turn. This annoyed Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell.

Apparently God had favored Abel and liked Abel’s offering; he liked neither Cain nor his offering. Understandably, Cain was not happy with this…

6And Hashem said to Cain, “Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? 7Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it.”

This is an interesting passage. Apparently Cain is mad that God has not found favor with him and with his offerings. God tells Cain that if he improves himself he will be forgiven. The passage does not state what it is that Cain has done for which he should seek forgiveness. Perhaps he has given an offering to God that is not to God’s liking. But is this a sin?

Abel apparently has given an offering of animals to God and has found favor. Cain has offered farming products and apparently God did not like the offering. The passage does not say what it is about the offering that God does not like. Perhaps Cain did not offer from his ‘choicest’, or perhaps God prefers gifts of animals to farm gifts!

More importantly, the passage seems to imply that if we give an offering and God does not like the offering, then we have sinned. This is an interesting interpretation of an ‘offering’, implying that a sacrifice or ‘offering’ is an obligation and not a choice.

Suppose you give a gift to your mother for her birthday. If your mother does not like the gift, are you deserving of blame, worthy of punishment?

“Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it.”

This is an important statement and is worthy of some comment. If the reader attends lectures given by rabbis, as I often have, he or she would note that rabbis often speak of ‘free will’. The concept of ‘free will’ is that man has been given the gift of making choices throughout his life. Man is free to choose between good and bad and these choices determine whether man would be considered righteous or evil. Many rabbis take the position that man has this free will. This passage is consistent with this teaching.

At that same time, often by the same rabbis, the concept of ‘beshert’ is taught. These rabbis speak of beshert, equating the concept with destiny. They say that things are ‘meant to be’. One Persian rabbi familiar to most readers states that ‘if a thing is meant to be, if it is beshert, then no matter what we do, it will happen’. In Persian, we equate the concept of ‘beshert’ with ‘ghesmat’. How often so and so boy marries so and so girl despite adversity and we say ‘it is ghesmat’? Or how often does a business deal fall through and we sigh and say ‘it was not meant to be’? Most rabbis teach this concept of destiny, stating that things are out of our hands and they will happen if they are meant to be.

Yet, notice that the concepts of ‘free will’ which the rabbis teach and the concept of ‘destiny’ which the same rabbis teach are totally at odds with one another. You can not say that we have ‘free will’ to shape our destiny and in the same breath say that destiny is out of our control and what will be will be. This is a supreme example of rabbis speaking out of both sides of their mouths!

Dear reader, the next time you hear a rabbi preach about ‘beshert’, please ask “but what about free will?” Or when he teaches you about ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘free will’ please ask “but what about beshert and destiny?” I sometimes find it interesting to see rabbis fidgeting and perspiring at the prospect of attempting to reconcile the two concepts. In these cases, they fall into reciting their familiar mantra: “the reply to stupid people is silence”!

In any case, God, in the passage appears to imply that if we improve ourselves, then we can find favor with him. He seems to state that we indeed have the freedom to shape our futures. In effect, God seems to imply that there is no such a thing as beshert or destiny! If I am wrong in this analysis, please let me know!

8Cain spoke with his brother Abel. And it happened when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.
9Hashem said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”
And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
10Then He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! 11Therefore you are cursed more than the ground, which opened wide its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a vagrant and a wanderer on earth.”

Here we have the jealousy of one brother against another. Cain’s first error is the murderous jealousy of Abel. Because of this intense jealousy, Cain murders Abel. Thus Cain’s second error was to murder. Next, God comes to Cain and asks him the whereabouts of his brother, and Cain lies to God. Cain’s third error is that he lied to God.

If you, dear reader, were the prosecutor, you would bring three charges against Cain:

And as a prosecutor you would lay your case against Cain to God and be confident that you would have a strong case. Perhaps you might seek the death penalty against Cain. Perhaps, since Cain had no previous offenses, you may get a life sentence.

Now suppose that I were the defense attorney for Cain, and presented Cain’s defense in the court of law, with God as judge. I would come to court, look the judge in the eye and ask “your honor, what crime is my client being charged with?”

“Why, that is simple” the prosecutor would reply. “The defendant, Cain, is being accused of murder, and lying and jealousy. As you know, the act of murder is contrary to the 6th commandment, jealousy is contrary to the 10th commandment, and lying is contrary to 9th commandment.”

(I actually looked up the above commandments to make sure that offenses correspond to the number of commandments. To my astonishment, I realized that in the Torah there are at least two sets of Ten Commandments, each of which is somewhat different. In the above, I am using the version of Ten Commandments mentioned in the Book of Exodus. For the interested readers who wish to see the different versions of the Ten Commandments, as well as the Christian versions of the Ten Commandments, I refer them to the following web site

But to get back to the original accusations that Cain violated 3 of the Ten Commandments, I would reply, “But your honor, the Ten Commandments have not yet been given. They will not have been given for another 3 thousand years. You have not, your honor, told Cain that murder is wrong. You have not explained that lying is wrong. Nor have you decreed that Jealousy and coveting are wrongful acts. Thus, there were no laws against murder or lying or coveting at the time this act was committed. My client therefore has not broken any laws, since, Judge, God, you have not yet given any laws. So how was my client supposed to know that murder was against your wishes? How was Cain supposed to know that lying and jealousy are contrary to God’s wishes?

“Your honor, there is a fundamental principle in justice and that is that you can not prosecute someone against an act that is not illegal! If an act is not illegal, a court can not hold people liable for that act. My client has not violated any law as you have not, dear God, made any laws. In fact you will not do so until after the flood of Noah. You must therefore release my client!”

I would make a good lawyer, right? Actually, I think I would make a lousy lawyer as I think that God apparently does not play by the rules of justice. As we shall see later, Cain in fact is punished severely for his acts. I would thus have lost the case!

I write the above in parody but my purpose is to illustrate a critically important principle. Prior to Cain’s murdering his brother, he either knew that murder was wrong or he did not. After all, the Ten Commandments which supposedly establish the moral foundation of humans, and which clearly state that murder is a sin, were not given until thousands of years after Cain. It is possible to assume that Cain did not know that murder was wrong. If he did not know that murder was wrong, since God did not tell him so, then how can God hold Cain accountable for his ‘sin’?

If on the other hand, Cain knew that murder was wrong, how did he know? We can guess that Cain knew that murder is wrong, because he tried to cover up his act when he was questioned by God. If Cain did not know that murder was wrong, when God asked him where his brother was, he would have simply said “oh, I spilled his blood so that he is dead. You want to go have a drink with me dear God?” Instead, Cain attempted to deceive God and claimed that he does not know where his brother was. Cain knew he was guilty of an immoral act and he tried to hide his act from God.

But how did he know? Did God tell Cain and Able about the Ten Commandments thousands of years in advance? If He did, then it is fair to say that the Ten Commandments were not given at Mount Sinai but given first to Cain and Abel! Would any rabbi be willing to admit that?

So if the Ten Commandments were not yet given to Cain, how did he know that murder was wrong?

Here we come to the most fundamental concept of morality. Dear reader, I have been writing articles for years now, and I have analyzed various aspects of religion. I have spoken against some customs of Shabbat; I have spoken about some laws of Kashrus, against the wearing of Sheytels, against the custom of animal sacrifices, and many other things. I am sure that the reader has read some of these articles and agreed with some of what I had written and disagreed with other articles. But if I can impress the reader with one concept – only one concept – it would be the following:

Morality, the ability to know right from wrong is within all of us as human beings. To know that murder is wrong, to realize the lying is immoral is innate within us. We did not come to realize that murder is immoral from the writings of the Ten Commandments. Rather, we knew that Murder was wrong, that Lying is wrong, that Jealousy and Coveting are wrong long before the Torah was given to us. These moral principals are wired into us. We do not need any book to provide us with this fundamental set of morality.

It was not the Torah that taught us that Murder is wrong. The very story of Cain and Abel teaches us this critical reality. We need not resort to the Torah to realize that lying is wrong, and equally, we do not need the Torah to explain that honoring our parents is important or that adultery is wrong. This realization is critical to secreting the heavy yoke of religion from the realm of morality. It is interesting that the very story of Cain and Abel teaches that religion and morality do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Thus, to me, the story of Cain and Abel clearly demonstrate that the bible supports the notion of ‘free will’ and confirms the concept that morality is innate in our human souls and not given to us by the Torah. This notion is obvious to a reasonable thinking person, whose logic has not been warped or tainted by religion. But to a religious person, be it a Jew or Christian, it is somehow clear that it is the Torah that gives us morality. This religious person would have you believe that without the Torah people would be roaming the street, murdering at will. Such is obviously not the case. I am glad to point out that such is not the case even by the Torah’s own claim.

To be continued…..