Bereshit – Taking Responsibility
All beginnings are difficult, the Talmud writes, and the beginning of Biblical history is no exception. A human being behind a project as large and complex as creating a world would be devastated to watch as plan after plan backfires and rule after rule is broken. Adam and Eve were placed in a paradise and given only one limitation. Eve was seduced to violate that limitation by a wily snake, and she persuaded Adam to follow suit. When God called Adam to account Adam was quick to deflect blame to Eve. Eve similarly deflected blame onto the snake. Neither was inclined to take responsibility.
Cain and Abel were the two children initially born to Adam and Eve. Cain grew jealous that God had accepted Abel’s offering but had not accepted his. There were words between them and then Cain killed Abel in a jealous rage. When God called Cain to account he initially denied culpability.
There were “words” between Cain and Abel before their altercation leading to Abel’s death. What were those words? The Torah doesn’t tell us what was said, it merely states that Cain spoke to Abel his brother. “Cain 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.”(Genesis 4:8)
The Targum Yonatan, a translation of the Tanach attributed to the great Mishnaic sage Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel, has a lengthy addition to the verse, describing an argument taking place between the two brothers concerning reward and punishment. Cain denied that there was a future World to Come, also denying any system of justice. Abel tried to convince Cain otherwise but ultimately was unsuccessful. The argument concluded with Cain killing Abel. Numerous commentators question why the Torah neglects to fill in any of the content of the conversation, informing us only that there were words between them. One answer advanced by commentaries explains that the Torah did not wish for Cain’s words of heresy to be recorded forever in the Torah, and therefore the content of the conversation was omitted.
Rabbi Raymond Beyda cites an explanation by another commentator, who first adds weight to the question, wondering why the Torah bothered at all to mention that there was a conversation if it was not going to write what the conversation was. He explains that the Torah means to highlight that it is human nature to rationalize our actions. We are always seeking justifications for what we do. We have a conscience and guilty feelings are present whenever we do something wrong. People don’t wish to act wrongly, but when circumstances push us to act in a less-than-model manner we think up excuses as to why our behavior is justified.
Cain did not simply get up and murder his brother. His conscience would not allow such a thing. He first argued that there was nothing wrong with it, claiming that there was no system of justice and no future of eternity. Cain found excuses to allow his jealousy to act on the perceived unfairness. God had favored Abel’s offering over his own and Cain’s resentment boiled within him. Perhaps the contents of the conversation were not appropriate to be inscribed in the Torah, but recognition of Cain’s attempt to justify his actions was necessary.
Adam and Eve similarly carried the instinct to justify their actions. Adam was quick to blame Eve and Eve passed the blame unto the snake. Ideally they would both have accepted responsibility, but it is difficult to see ourselves as accountable. The Torah’s message throughout the Parsha is that we are accountable and it is important for us to take responsibility. Our instinct is to deny, no different than our early ancestors, but the goal is to train ourselves to accept responsibility.