Torah from around the world #34

by Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh, a congregational rabbi in Ireland and Wales, founder rabbi of Congregation Shir HaTzaphon in Copenhagen and Honorary Director of Studies at the Leo Baeck College in London; lecturer at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College, Dublin

This Shabbat we commenced again the reading of the Torah with the portion of Bereishit, and from this sidra we hear, among other things, the tragic story of Cain and Abel.  The first brothers in the history of the world, the first murderer and the first victim.

The first to find divine favour and the first to feel irrational hatred and jealousy.  For the tragedy in the story is shared.  Cain and Abel are very different men, and the former, though older, clearly feels at a disadvantage in every way in comparison to his brother.  Whether Abel took advantage of this emotion in his brother the Torah does not relate, but we can surmise – our knowledge of human nature being what it is – that there is more than a possibility that he did so.  Cain reacts predictably and extremely in this situation and is then punished severely by God for his fratricidal act, becoming in his own way as much a victim as his brother.

It is fascinating then to discover that in those parts of world literature in which Cain makes an appearance, he is universally excoriated as a murderer, rather than being seen in any way as a victim, much in the same way in which Esau is so utterly calumniated in rabbinic literature.

Many examples may be advanced of the unremittingly harsh way in which poets and writers have treated Cain, one or two will have to suffice.  The following extract from Byron’s Manfred is a perfect representation:(I,i,242)

By thy cold breast and serpent smile,

By thy unfathom’d gulfs of guile,

By that most seeming virtuous eye,

By thy shut soul’s hypocrisy;

By the perfection of thine art

Which passed for human thine  own heart;

By thy delight in others’ pain,

And by thy brotherhood of Cain,

I call upon thee! and compel

Thyself to be thy proper Hell!

The tradition grew up that Cain had red hair and that this feature was a sign in a human being of a fiery temper, and this is something to which even Shakespeare refers.  It seems that no-one can speak well of Cain.  Of course, it might all be different today where society finds excuses for the worst perpetrators of crime.  Cain had a deprived childhood, they would say, an unstable home life, his parents were pathological liars, his brother had delusions that he was favored by God and with this increased Cain’s already existent inferiority complex, and so on and so forth… we have heard it all before.

Yet it is hard not to have a sneaking sympathy for Cain, for the text makes it absolutely clear that circumstance created the conflict between him and his brother, and that although he may legitimately be described as a fratricide, nevertheless it was God – and not he – who was responsible for the circumstances, and therefore it is God who must take at least an equal proportion of the blame.

When you consider this story and all its implications, and when you bear in mind everything else that is in parshat Bereishit, it is hard not to conclude that only a rabbi with a slightly malicious sense of humour would select such a sidra for a Bar Mitzvah to read; after all, why choose such a negative tale when there is the creation epic in all its glory to be selected.  Yet this is exactly what one of our rabbis in Brighton did for my Bar Mitzvah, 41 years ago!

I remember it well, the build-up, the tension, the service, though not, as I have remarked before, the rabbi’s sermon, and the luncheon party that followed (of which almost all of the guests, with about 3 exceptions, are now dead).  In many ways, it seems strange to think that it was only 41 years ago, for it might just as easily be a 100.

The passage of time, the growth, the experience that we all undergo during a period of four decades is so significant, and so transforming that it is possible to look back on the person one once was with the same degree of detached and impartial fascination as one would consider an interesting animal specimen in a zoo.

And indeed to contemplate with varying degrees of horror or amazement the person one has become.

Think about the hopes and dreams and ideas you have at thirteen; life stretches ahead of you, the world is full of opportunity, self-confidence is just beginning to grow, the best is yet to come.  38 years later most of us will have experienced life in all its variety.

We will have known joy and achievement, we will have experienced adult love, we will have learned more than we could ever have imagined learning.

And we will have known grief, and loss, and disappointment, the shattering of dreams, the betrayal of ideals, the nauseating hypocrisy of the world and all its terrors.  We will be battered, bruised and dismayed, riddled with self-doubt and fear – we will, at last, have grown up.

Then, perhaps, and only then will we be able to understand Cain’s tragedy and greatness, and our own:  to be the eternal victim of circumstances beyond our control rather than the architects of our own destiny, to be flotsam on the sea of time rather than the pilots of a mighty bark, to be casualties of an incomprehensible and intangible whim… and yet not to give in.

Like Cain to pick ourselves up, shake ourselves very hard, and start again to face life and try and claw something bearable from it, maybe even to succeed, against apparently huge odds, and do more than just survive.  That is the strength that lies at the heart of the human enigma, that is the lesson that we can learn from our ancestor Cain.

Maybe that rabbi thirty-five years ago was much wiser and much less malicious than I thought!

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