Here is an ancient legend about Cain and Abel, which I’ve embellished:
The fourteenth of Nisan, Passover eve, was quickly ending in nightfall. Adam the first man, wasn’t looking up at the sky, he was looking into the future.
“Come here…come here now!” he barked at his two sons, Cain and Abel, who tumbled toward him in a whirring, rolling ball of blood, spit and thick dust, the trademark of their deepening, soon-to-be-fatal enmity.
“Look,” he said to them, pointing outward toward the blackening plain that fronted the edges of Eden, the padlocked Paradise.
Cain snorted derisively, “What’s to look at? Another one of God’s dustbowls?” (Remember that God had punished Adam’s disobedience in Eden by cursing the ground under his feet.)
“Idiot!” Adam grunted. “Not the field, the future! Look at the future!”
Abel, terrified by familial trauma into anxious silence all of his life, laboriously drew in his breath, then pushed out his breath to form his one-word question: “Huh?”
“The future,” Adam panted again, his index finger stabbing the night sky in front of him. “A thousand years from now, God tells me, a group of slaves will walk out of hell and onto this very land, as free people, like no one before them. On the fourteenth of Nisan, this day, this night, they’ll slaughter a lamb, splatter its blood on their doorposts, broil its every muscle, organ and bone, consume it and their freedom with delirious abandon. Gratitude,...that’s what they’ll really offer on this night a thousand years from now.”
The boys listened to his rant, amused but not alarmed. As crazy as daddy was behaving, he had behaved this way many times before since the expulsion from Eden. It had left his sense wasted, his grounding in reality teetering. The boys were for that moment united in laughter at their common, stupid enemy. Repeating the script he’d perfected over the years since they were kids, Cain sneeringly feigned filial obedience. “Daddy, what would you like us to do once we’ve looked into the future?”
“Do what they’re going to do!” Adam demanded, turning to each of them. “You’re a farmer and you’re a shepherd, yes? Grab the things you cultivate and offer them to the Creator! Forget about those slaves’ future. I fear something ugly will be happening in your future very soon. Make your offerings and maybe that way God will protect you.”
“The shmuck is out of his mind!” Cain muttered just loud enough for Abel to hear and vigorously shake his head in mute agreement. Both boys, men really but boys in Adam’s presence, hiked off to find a gift to offer the Creator, Cain to his meager farm, Abel to his fat, juicy lambs and ewes.
Cain…his smirking derision was a cover for his hunger for his father’s love, his starving heart fed by his father with nothing but an ulcerative acid of disappointment and disdain.
Cain…searched through the moldy, rotting reapings of the new harvest, tore apart the piles of cursed produce for something honorable to offer God, and to offer his human daddy. He scooped up a fistful of golden flax seeds still untouched by blight, pocketed the precious particles, hoping against hope to finally earn some favor.
Abel…his silence was a cover for the terror of living with his jealous brother, his angry and divided parents.
Abel…carelessly and thoughtlessly yanked a luscious little lamb from his bursting flock, figuring that either it would be overlooked because he was always overlooked when Cain held forth; or that it would readily be accepted because it was such a choice piece of meat to sate God’s ravenous hunger. Either way, there was little control he had over the situation so he might as well not put too much sincere effort into the matter.
The boys brought back their respective offerings to the family compound, set them up near the crude altar that Adam had built, as the fire he kindled brightened and roared, its crackling flames almost whispering,
“Bring us food to eat on this night of freedom…”
First Cain, his face already falling from anguish and anger, throwing the flax seeds on the fire, with Adam and Abel looking on, Adam’s head shaking with vigorous disgust, spitting out his condemnation, “Figures this is what a lazy, arrogant fool like him would offer God.” As if in agreement, God’s altar fire burned the seeds to foul smelling ash.
Then, Abel, lugging the slaughtered, bloodied lamb forward, throwing it on the fire, with Adam and Cain looking on, Adam’s face bright with approval for the good deeds of his favored son. As if snatched by God Godself, the flames consumed the lamb, leaving a pile of ashes and sweet meat savor.
Was Cain wrong or wronged? Was Abel enabled by his father and his Father in heaven? Sadly, no one stuck around that day to unpack Abel’s favor and Cain’s loss. God was silent about God’s choice, Adam walked away more convinced than ever that Cain was a loser deserving of utter condemnation, Abel wordlessly wandered away to his sheep.
And Cain? Well, Adam was right, something ugly was about to happen in his and his brother’s future, but their offerings on that ominous night in Nisan would not prevent it; those offerings hurled the siblings head first into it. Entering the compound the next day, Cain stood over his sun-dazed, drowsy brother, as he held his hoe in one hand and a jagged, pointy rock in the other. Abel squinted in the sun, felt a flash of horror, and whispered to him,
“Brother, God wants the best. So now I will offer God what pleases God the most.”[i]
In less than an instant of hatred and brutality, Cain made history by setting the future on its bloody course. For the rest of time, even on that night of freedom, 14 Nisan, no one would ever truly be free.
Cain is the Torah’s mythic founder of murder and violence, the paradigm of human thuggery and brutality who rightly earned his horrible reputation: after all he was the first to murder by murdering his brother, and surely, all murder is fratricide. Yet, I argue that Cain the murderer is far more complicated than we faithful readers admit. Centuries of commentators, seeking to cast Cain’s evildoing in cut and dry terms, have read the Torah’s sparse narrative about the siblings in one exclusive interpretive vein: Cain selfishly, rudely offered God garbage and was rightly rebuffed by God in favor of his brother Abel. Predictably, Cain’s clueless arrogance made him explode with anger at his innocent brother whom he murdered. My reading of the brothers’ offerings poses a different possibility. Cain offered poor produce to God not because he couldn’t care less; on the contrary, he cared too much about pleasing God, Adam, Eve, for whose love and favor he competed with Abel. But Cain was a farmer, tilling the soil that was poisoned as the result of God’s punishment of Adam before the expulsion from Eden. Cain offered an impoverished gift to God because that was all he had. Why did God still reject his offering? Only God knows, but the early commentators nonetheless dismiss Cain’s motives, condemning not only his murderous behavior, but everything about him. In their interpretive hands throughout history, Cain becomes an easy stereotype, unworthy of the slightest benefit of the doubt.
Let me reiterate that there was nothing good about what Cain did to Abel. One’s darkest feelings never justify destroying another person: that is the main moral message of Cain and Abel. But a possible sub-textual message peeking out from between the lines of the story is that we need to be careful to judge people l’khaf zekhut, giving them the benefit of the doubt. Explaining the concept, the Talmud notes that if you see someone doing something that you could interpret favorably or suspiciously, start by judging favorably, until you have actual evidence that he’s engaged in wrongdoing. If you see someone clearly doing wrong, don’t demonize her by assuming that she must be unrepentantly evil; what she’s doing is evil, but she may possess other very fine moral qualities that you could encourage so she refrains from doing wrong in the future. Getting all the facts and the full picture of who a person is allows us to understand his or her good and bad behavior with more nuance, compassion, and understanding of how to prevent or enhance that behavior in the future. If this is the case for someone like Cain, how much more so is it the case for someone who is a generally good human being? Judging l’khaf zekhut also forces us out of our lazy, often bigoted tendency to read one person’s actions through the deterministic lenses of race, class, gender, and geography. We learn to examine critically that one person’s successes and failings, without falling into the trap of falsely assuming anything stereotypical about him or her or the background and people from which he or she derives.
The great Torah scholar Maimonides writes in his code of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah, that judging another person’s actions with such thoroughgoing generosity is the domain of the Talmid Ḥakham, the wise person distinguished by Torah study. (Laws of Character, 5:7) This implies of course that such a quality of character is so difficult to achieve it is reserved for people who possess superlative intellectual and spiritual characteristics. However, in an earlier work, his commentary on the Mishnah (the oral Torah), Maimonides also writes that any and every person should judge others l’khaf zekhut as much as possible, with the understanding that a person’s reputation for wrongdoing should make us suspicious even of his good deeds until his sincerity is proven otherwise (Commentary to Tractate Avot 1:6). Both of Maimonides’ teachings show us that approaching other people’s actions, personalities and motives l’khaf zekhut can be extremely difficult. It is easier to generalize, make snap assumptions, and not examine individuals and situations with what can be uncomfortable nuance and ambiguity, especially when we already don’t like the person we’re judging. Yet both teachings also remind us to struggle with this negatively judgmental impulse. It might be easier and it certainly might make us feel a great sense of catharsis and righteousness to quickly assume someone’s guilt and to condemn that person. But ultimately, it isn’t fair, it’s intellectually and morally sloppy, and it contributes little to actual justice. From a Jewish values perspective, judging l’khaf zekhut, when applied wisely, prevents us from lashing out angrily and too quickly at the behavior and presence in the world of others, especially those we aren’t inclined to like. In that way, we bring more peace into our relationships and into the world.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY and a Judaic Studies teacher at the Hebrew Academy of The Capital District. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, (Jewish Publication Society, April 2020)
Rabbi Ornstein has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for the last several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted.
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