Writings / The First Argument

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. [Genesis 1:1]

The Torah begins with a description of the unfolding of events at the dawn of history. It has long been the understanding of the Rabbis that, as important as the literal meaning of the text may be, the primary importance of the Torah lies in its theological teachings. The Torah is a book of theological truth which is the word of God, and, therefore, historically accurate as well. The Rabbis interpreting the Torah in the Talmud, Midrash, and the Zohar, the chief work of the Kabbalah, were well aware of this idea. Consequently, verses which may seem mundane or simplistic to the uninitiated often contain the most profound teachings and secrets of the Torah.

Examining this Torah portion, the Midrash makes an inference, not from what is said, but by noting what is missing. After each day of creation God declares that "it was good," except for the second day. Why?

"R'Yochanan explained in the name of R'Yose ben R'Halafta: Because on this day Gehenna (Hell) was created. R'Hanina said: Because on this day schism came into the world, as it is written,And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters ..." [Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 4:6]

The Midrash teaches that this act of separation is the power which allows for dissension to enter into the world. However, readers familiar with the text will note that the term VAYAVDIL, "to separate," was used on the first day as well, when God separated between light and darkness. Why, then, is the power of dissension only expressed on the second day?

Apparently, argumentation can only take place when two things or two people do not have clearly-defined boundaries. The separation between light and darkness is absolute -- they are opposites, and therefore no dissension follows their separation. However, the separation between water and water, which are ostensibly the same, is where the power of dissent originates. God separated the higher waters from the lower waters, water from water, like from like. And in this act of the second day dissension was created.

This Midrash serves as an introduction to one of the most tragic events described in the Book of Genesis. Chapter 4 records the birth of Cain and Abel, their difference of opinion, and finally the tragic murder of Abel.

And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bore Cain, and said, 'I have acquired a man from the Lord'. And she again bore his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. [Genesis 4:1-2]

These two verses lack symmetry. When Cain is born, his name is immediately explained. He is a gift from God, perhaps seen as an agent in the mending of the relationship between God and Eve that had become dysfunctional since the eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. When Abel is born, no reason is given for the choice of his name. In Hebrew, Abel, HEVEL, means "nothingness." It seems that from the outset, Abel doesn't count, he is simply the brother of Cain.

And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. [Genesis 4:2]

Cain becomes a farmer. As per the rules of exile, he is following God's commandment to work the cursed earth "by the sweat of his brow." Abel, however, becomes a keeper of sheep; he seems to be ignoring the rules of exile and trying to relate to God in the way his father did in the Garden of Eden, where Adam was given the task to be the keeper of the animals.

The Midrash tells us something interesting about the births of Cain and Abel. Cain, we are told, was born with a twin sister; Abel, however, was born along with two sisters. [Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 22:2)

Perhaps this is the origin of the friction between Cain and Abel. Cain is the older brother, the "golden child." The hopes and aspirations of Eve rest upon him. So why, Cain asks, did God give Abel a larger portion of sisters? After all, we should be treated equally, but if anyone were to receive a double share, it should have the first born.

This sets the stage for the rest of the Book of Genesis, where the younger brother consistently achieves superiority over the older brother who inevitably fails.

Initially Cain sets about his task, works the land and brings an offering of some fruit to God. Abel, too, offers from his flock, sacrificing the best of them.

And the Lord had respect for Abel and for his offering. But for Cain and for his offering he did not have respect. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said to Cain, 'Why are you angry and why is your countenance fallen? If you do well, shall you not be accepted? And if you do not well, sin lies at the door. And to you shall be his desire, and yet you may rule over him. [Genesis 4:4-7]

Cain repeatedly compares himself with his brother Abel, and finds himself on the short end of the stick. In so doing, he defines himself in terms of his relationship with his brother. He judges his accomplishments by comparing them with his brother's. When Cain sees that he has not been as successful as Abel, he becomes bitter, angry and depressed. Cain's problem was that he assumed that he and his brother were the same and were, therefore, deserving of equal opportunities and success. This reminds us of the second day of creation when God separated between the waters. When two things are assumed to be equal, dissension follows.

And Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. [Genesis 4:8]

Again there is a lack of symmetry. Cain speaks to Abel. (We do not know what he said.) Abel does not answer. Abel is apparently not involved in this argument; it is one-sided. At this point, Cain is overwhelmed by rage and murders his brother.

And the Lord said to Cain, 'Where is Abel your brother?' And he said, 'I know not; Am I my brother's keeper?' And He said, 'What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood cries to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened her mouth to swallow your brother's blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall not henceforth yield to you her strength; a fugitive and a wanderer shall you be in the earth.[Genesis 4:9-12]

The earth had already been cursed once -- when Adam was expelled from the Garden of Eden -- and now it is cursed again because it swallowed the blood of Abel. While Adam had to work the earth by the sweat of his brow and in sorrow eat of its produce, Cain, the next tiller of soil, will get nothing from it; all he can do is wander the barrenness, finding no respite.

The tragic end to the relationship between Cain and Abel unleashed the spiritual power for other arguments that will take place in the future. One such argument related in the Torah, in the Book of Numbers -- between Korach and Moses -- strikes us with its stunning parallels:

And they [Korach and his followers] gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, 'You have taken too much upon yourselves, since the entire congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you lift up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?' [Numbers 16:3]

Korach, the leader of the revolt, was a populist. He had an attractive philosophy which he conveyed to the masses. Korach claimed that all people are equally holy, therefore all people should be treated the same, with the same rights and opportunities. Of course, Korach's argument was the same as Cain's.

The end that God chose for the Korach rebellion is filled with irony:

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses and all the people belonging to Korach and all of their possessions. [Numbers 16:32]

The last time -- and the only other time -- that the Torah used that phrasing was in reference to Abel when the earth "opened its mouth to swallow" the blood of the murdered brother. [Genesis 4:11]

The mystics, based on a tradition from the great 15th century Kabbalist Ariza'l have a very elegant explanation for these similarities -- they teach that Korach was a reincarnation of the soul of Cain. [Shaar Hagiligulim Hakdama 33; also see the Shem MiShmuel in Parshat Korach]

But there are other similarities in the Cain/Abel and Korach/Moses stories:


  • Abel's name meant "nothingness." We are told that Moses was the most modest of men. We may assume that Moses, like Abel, did not think too much of himself. His leadership position was not attained through political maneuvering; he was given it directly by God and tried to decline.



  • When Cain argued with Abel, Abel did not respond. Similarly, the Pirkei Avot, "Ethics of the Fathers," describes the argument of Korach as "the argument of Korach and his followers," not as the argument between Moses and Korach. [Avot 5:17]



  • Moses was aware of the uniqueness of each individual; Korach tried to blur the differences between people.


It is one of the profound teachings of Judaism, that not all people are created equal. Each person certainly has an inalienable right to his or her dignity, but not all people possess equal roles and destinies.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik illustrated this idea with an insight regarding the quintessential statement of Jewish monotheism, the SH'MA: "Listen Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One." Rabbi Soloveitchik commented that he would prefer to translate the Hebrew word ehad not as "one" but as "unique." Jewish monotheism does not differ from polytheism purely in numeric terms -- a belief in one God vs. many. The declaration implied in the SH'MA is that God is unique. Man is created in the image of God, which means that each and every human being is unique as well. The challenge of life is to find our uniqueness and develop it, not to define ourselves in comparison with others, but to search within ourselves and find our uniqueness, our image of God.

Indeed, when the Torah commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, we can ask, "How can one possibly love others"? The secret of loving others is in discovering their uniqueness and appreciating it. A mother loves all her children, for she appreciates the uniqueness of each child. We are commanded to find the uniqueness in each person and to love them for it.

When a person identifies his own uniqueness and develops that uniqueness, he truly manifests the image of God within himself. And then he can love others in the same way. Therein lies the mistake of Cain. He could not see his own uniqueness. He could not appreciate his brother's niqueness. He did not know the meaning of brotherhood.

On the other hand, the behavior of Moses from earliest adulthood illustrates the opposite attitude.

And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens; and he spied an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brothers. [Exodus 2:11]

He goes out to his brothers to see their suffering. Not withstanding that he is the prince of Egypt, he identifies with the plight of the slaves. He responds to the sense of brotherhood he feels between himself and the Jews.

And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.[Exodus 2:12]

Moses kills a man but his act is profoundly different from the act of Cain. Cain's act was a murder resulting from jealousy of his brother. Moses was acting to protect his brother.

The Ariz'al explains all these similarities and parallels -- the soul of Abel was reincarnated in Moses. And thus we come to find the first two brothers in the Torah who really, truly, related to one another with love and respect -- Moses and his brother Aaron.

And the Lord said to Aaron, 'Go into the wilderness to meet Moses. And he went, and met him in the mount of God, and kissed him. [Exodus 4:27]

The Midrash stresses the importance of this kiss:

"When it says: 'Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other'[Psalms 85:11] mercy refers to Aaron ... while truth refers to Moses ... Righteousness refers to Moses, of whom it is said: 'He executed the righteousness of the Lord' [Deuteronomy 33:21], and peace refers to Aaron, of whom it says: 'He walked with Me in peace and uprightness' [Malachi 2:6] Rightousness and peace have kissed each other, as it says, ... 'And he [Aaron] kissed him [Moses].' Why? Each one rejoiced at the other's greatness." [Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 5:10]

Throughout the Book of Genesis, we do not find harmony among brothers. The unity of these two brothers, Moses and Aaron, is what enables them to lead the people out of Egypt and to bring them to Mt. Sinai to accept the Torah. In order to leave Egypt the children of Israel had first to become a nation. In order to receive the Torah they needed unity. The core of this unity was the love and mutual respect exhibited between Moses and Aaron. "Each one rejoiced at the other's greatness." Each appreciated the greatness and uniqueness of the other as Cain and Abel never did.