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MURDER IN THE FIRST

by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Imagine what the newspaper headlines must have read the next morning. Across the front page, above a mug shot of Cain, the over-enlarged letters probably screamed something like "Murder in Adam’s family".

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Imagine what the newspaper headlines must have read the next morning. Across the front page, above a mug shot of Cain, the over-enlarged letters probably screamed something like "Murder in Adam’s family". The unbelievable events described in the fourth chapter of this week’s Torah portion were probably the primary topic of every talk show and gossip column in the newly-created world, creating an uproar that unseated Man’s banishment from paradise and the snake’s fall from grace from the top of the charts.

Indeed, Cain’s ruthless killing of Abel is extremely difficult to digest. The firstborn son of the two people who were formed by G-d’s own hands and a prophet in his own right, how could Cain have done such a horrible thing as to kill his own brother? Our immediate response is to attribute Cain’s actions to the destructive character trait of jealousy. Unable to bear the fact that Hashem had rejected his offering in favor of Abel’s, Cain took the drastic step of murdering his brother. He thereby removed his only competition so that he could inherit the entire world by himself as the only surviving son of Adam and Eve.

But attributing Cain’s actions solely to jealousy raises further questions. After all, Cain was a person of status and of true greatness. It is therefore hard to believe that Cain was suddenly reduced to nothing more than an angry sibling mercilessly lashing out because of a petty disagreement. There must be something more to the story.

It would seem that Cain’s mistake began well before the actual murder. The problem originated in his negative reaction to Hashem’s rejection of his offering. Cain failed to select the best of his crop to present before Hashem, thinking that it would be sufficient to pick any vegetable growing in the field. Abel, on the other hand, toiled to find the best of his flock. When Cain became depressed at the setback, Hashem appeared to him and told him that the rejection was not the end of the world. "Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door" (Genesis 4:6-7). Improvement was well-within his reach. All Cain had to do was bring a better offering and his problems would have been solved.

However, he refused to listen. Immediately after Hashem finished telling him that depression would only lead to further sin, Cain arose and killed his brother. He had paid no attention to Hashem’s warning, and he deluded himself into believing that there was no way that he could improve. Even when Hashem appeared to Cain after the murder and asked him, "Where is your brother?" providing the ultimate opportunity for Cain to come clean with his transgression and begin the difficult but highly-rewarding road back to Hashem, Cain refused to recognize that he could in fact repent. Thus, he uttered the infamous words, "Am I my brother’s keeper?!" in essence throwing off the yoke of responsibility from his shoulders.

Our greatest sins do not arise overnight, and nobody becomes a murderer simply by waking up one morning on the wrong side of the bed. Minor deviations in perspective and attitude can serve as the seeds for horrible transgressions in the future. A missed opportunity to draw closer to Hashem today automatically propels us further away tomorrow. As the rabbis succinctly expressed it, "One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin" (Ethics of our Fathers 4:2). In these critically important first weeks of the new year, it is incumbent upon us to capitalize on the inspiration we hopefully felt during the past holiday season and set a positive tone for the upcoming year.

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Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta, is enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.

You are invited to read more Bereishit articles.

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