Bereishit – Cain and Abel

Cain and Abel

Cain

It’s bitterly unjust.
I was firstborn
by just an hour
so I get to be the farmer.

But Abel,
he gets the easy job
and he loves it.
He wanders out
with the flocks
and returns to regale me, with
the glory of the landscape.
He wants to show me
the sunrises he’s seen.
I pretend not to listen.
He flushes and falls silent.
I could kill him!

Day after day
of unremitting toil.
My hands are calloused,
my eyes smart from the dust.
Sometimes I lie on my pallet at night,
my back contorted and aching.
In the beginning, I thought
I could re-create
Eden for my parents.
They always recall fragrant fruit
and lush vegetables
there for the picking.
But when He drove them out,
God said, “By toil
and the sweat of your brow
shall you get bread to eat!”
And He meant it.
Only now it’s the sweat
of my brow
that drops down
on the unforgiving earth.

My father said
we should offer something
to God for His bounty,
so I brought crops
which were spare.
It displeased God.

Abel brought his firstlings
and God accepted them.
Now I’m filled with rage.
I‘m bursting to tell someone
– perhaps Abel will listen,
but oh! he’s in his dream world.
I want him to go with me
for a walk outside.
Maybe I’ll feel better
away in the fields.

Abel

I’m really blessed.
To be second-born
isn’t such an honor,
but I get to be the shepherd.

But Cain,
he toils away
and he loathes it.
He tills the ground,
back bent, face red.
I try to describe for him
the glory of the landscape.
I’d like to show him
the sunrises I’ve seen.
He doesn’t want to listen.
He looks as though
he could kill me!

Day after day
I tend the flocks.
My hands caress their soft skin,
their gentle eyes gaze at me.
Sometimes I lie in the afternoon shade,
my back on warm ground.
I  listen to birdsong
and the rustling breeze:
Eden must be like this.
Sometimes I rise at night
to care for the sheep.
I see galaxies of stars
ranged across the dark sky.
God said to my father,
“See My works, how beautiful,
how praiseworthy they are!
All that I have created,
I created for your benefit…”
After dawn I go out with the flocks.
I see dewdrops on the leaves
dripping on soft brown earth.

My heart was so full, I felt
I should offer something
to God for His bounty,
so I brought the finest
of my firstlings.
It pleased God.

Cain brought his fruits
and God rejected them.
Now I see how
Cain’s face has fallen.
I think he just spoke
but I didn’t catch it.
He wants me to go with him
for a walk outside.
Maybe he’ll feel better
away in the fields.

The Midrash relates that Eve had a dream which augured the death of Abel at the hand of Cain. She relayed it to Adam who separated the two lads, assigning them different occupations in the hope of averting such a tragedy – but to no avail.

The Etz Hayim (commentary of the JPS) suggests that Cain as the first-born, inherited his father’s occupation as the farmer, and possibly tried to duplicate Eden for his parents, as children often take on and try to realize their parents’ unfulfilled dreams. Abel thus became the shepherd. The Etz Hayim also points out that in Bible narrative, younger siblings are frequently more virtuous and furthermore there appears to be a special affinity for shepherds (Abraham, Moses and David.)

In Kohelet Rabba (7:28) the Midrash tells how after the Holy-One-Blessed-be-He creates the first Man, he takes him on a tour of the garden of Eden, showing him all the beautiful trees and telling him how they have been created for the benefit and enjoyment of humanity.

As to the offerings, the text gives no reason why Abel’s offering was accepted while Cain’s was rejected. The commentators search for clues. The text says that Cain brought an offering while Abel brought a choice offering. The Sefat Emet suggests that where the text says “Abel brought, for his part, the choicest of his firstlings”, “for his part (gam hu)” is literally translated “also he” and implies he brought also himself or, he brought wholeheartedly.

With regard to the lack of dialogue between the brothers, the text says “Cain said to his brother Abel…and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.” (Bereishit 4:8). The text says nothing of what was said or what was the response. In his book Messengers of God – Biblical Portraits and Legends, Elie Wiesel criticizes Abel for being aloof. He imagines that Cain was grief-stricken and hurt and wanted to unburden himself and Abel did nothing to console him. He imagines Abel as dreaming and not hearing, or hearing and not listening. Wiesel says’ “In the face of suffering, one has no right to turn away, not to see. In the face of injustice, one may not look the other way. When someone suffers, and it is not you, he comes first.” But Wiesel goes on to say that this does not mean if Abel was guilty, that Cain was innocent. He was envious of Abel and repudiated him because Abel seemed to have been favoured by God.

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