I usually do not re-read books, but the American writer, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is one of those great, sweeping novels to which I enthusiastically returned recently, 30 years after I had first read it as a young man, naïve and inexperienced at life. The novel’s title, East of Eden, is not merely a reference to the paradise-like beauty of California, where he grew up and which he describes in beautiful detail. It is a quote taken from the Torah, specifically the story of the brothers, Cain and Abel. Overcome with jealousy towards his brother, Abel, for receiving preferential attention from God, Cain murders him, even though God warns him that he has the power to control his murderous rage. After being interrogated and cursed by God, the world’s first murderer leaves God’s presence just outside of the Garden of Eden, from which his parents, Adam and Eve, had been banished. He settles east of Eden, placing himself even further than where had started from the ideal life of childlike human innocence.

Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a modern midrash, a creative interpretation of the Bible’s tragic story of how envy, sibling rivalry and conflict within families can lead to the most destructive consequences. Cain and Abel of course belongs to us, the Jewish people, for it is a master story found in our sacred writings. Yet in its broadest sense it is a cautionary tale about what Elie Wiesel called the world’s first genocide.In this respect, it belongs to every human being. Steinbeck used Cain and Abel to write his novel about three very complicated generations of one family. Writing part autobiography and part allegory, he wove the Cain and Abel narrative, along with its agonizing insights about being human, into his story about the fatal love-hate relationships between two sets of brothers.

Through these and other well developed characters, Steinbeck relentlessly asked questions about the nature of human freedom and the choices between good and evil that we make. In a great dialogue scene — one that I think is some of the best American novel writing — Steinbeck argued eloquently that the timeless message of the Cain and Abel story comes down to just one Hebrew word from the original story in the Torah, one that might be the most important word in the world. That word is God’s warning to Cain before he murders his brother: timshol. This Hebrew word can be translated in three different ways: “You must rule over your temptation to do evil,” “You will rule over your temptation to do evil,” and “You can choose to rule over your temptation to do evil.” Steinbeck concluded that God was not commanding Cain to be good. God was not guaranteeing that Cain would be good. God was telling Cain, and the entire human race, that we can choose to be good. As Steinbeck wrote,

That [choice] makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he still has the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.

Timshol: this one word is telling humanity that  we can choose to fight through and win the battle against our worst impulses, our worst sadness, anger, hatred; we can choose to do better, behave better, act with more compassion and self-restraint. Or we can choose to submit to those worst impulses, even to the point of committing acts of barbarous evil that make Cain’s murder of his brother look like a fight in a nursery school sandbox Human freedom, in Steinbeck’s reading of our biblical story, is not one of the things that makes being human so great, it is the only thing that makes it great.  I love Steinbeck’s reading of the Torah. It opens up one deeper meaning of the Cain and Abel story, and it certainly speaks to our own tradition’s greatest insights about moral freedom, repentance, and forgiveness. But I will argue that this one Hebrew word he chose to focus on, timshol, is not the most important word or phrase that the story of Cain and Abel has to teach us. Yes, freedom is of tremendous importance to the Torah and to being human. Yes, our ability to be angels or monsters is what grants us our dignity. But, in some respects, Steinbeck doesn’t go far enough in his analysis. The Torah ultimately is not about having freedom, it is about what you do with that freedom, not only to live your life, but to be God’s partner in making the world better.

I want to suggest that we look even more closely at a different part our biblical story. After Cain murdered Abel, God came to him asking, “Where is Abel your brother?” Let’s assume that God knew perfectly well where Abel was, but that God’s question was intended as an opening to Cain to come clean about his crime. Instead, Cain brazenly answered God’s question with another, by now famous, rhetorical question: Lo yadati. Ha-shomer achi anokhi, “How should I know where Abel is. Am I my brother’s keeper?” I believe that this question might be the most significant phrase in our story, because of another critical Hebrew word found there: shomer, keeper or guardian. To understand it’s importance, we need to go back a little further into the Bible’s history of humanity’s first family.

According to the book of Genesis, when Adam, Cain and Abel’s father was created, God placed him in the Garden of Eden, l’ovdah u-l’shomrah, “to work on it and to guard it.” That Hebrew word, l’shomrah, to guard or protect something, is similar to our word, shomer, a keeper or a guard. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel’s parents and the founders of humanity, were entrusted with keeping and guarding the Garden of Eden, all of physical existence. It is strange that the first people were charged with this difficult task. Eden was supposed to be an ideal place where human initiative was unnecessary because God had prepared everything for the first humans that they would need for survival. Why then would Adam be commanded to actively care for it? God could easily have done the entire job of guarding and cultivating the world, but God chose not to do so, insisting instead that humanity share that responsibility.  Adam and Eve’s job as shomrim, guardians, was to work in active service to God to keep the world from descending into chaos and lifelessness, both through caring for the physical world and through caring for each other.

I suggest that this call to work with God echoes ironically in Cain’s rhetorical question to God. By disavowing himself of all responsibility for Abel as his shomer, his guardian or keeper, Cain was alluding to his parents’ original responsibility to guard the world, as God’s partners and servants; however, he perverted the original meaning of that task. His argument appears logical, yet it is actually very cynical and disingenuous. We can imagine Cain saying, “God, you placed my parents in the Garden of Eden on the condition that they be its guardians.  Once you forcibly removed them from there, and my family has had to live here in reality beyond paradise, we are no longer responsible for our part of that arrangement. Out here, East of Eden, it’s every man for himself. In that circumstance, can you really expect me to be my brother’s guardian and keeper?”

Cain’s renunciation of his role as Abel’s shomer, his guardian, also points to his corrosive despair. When the world was new, Cain’s parents and God shared a hopeful vision of what being human would mean for the planet. Human beings would take the rich raw materials given to us by God and easily coax new life from the earth for the benefit of all the earth’s residents. They had a great mission to be the earth’s guardians, a mission incumbent upon us, their descendants.  When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and were expelled from Eden into reality, they traded innocence and safety for mature awareness and deep insecurity. All the more reason for them to continue to be guardians of the world, for if they would not do it who would? As angry and hurt as he was, Cain would not see that, despite his hurt, his life was also a continuation of this legacy. He could not see that, God’s rejection of him notwithstanding, he still had an obligation to treat his brother with decency. Cain was a farmer, the ultimate symbol life. What cruel and bitter irony it is that, instead of being a source of life on the earth he was supposed to farm, Cain delivered death to it by shedding Abel’s blood upon it, destroying a vital piece of his human family, and abdicating his obligation to guard and protect others.

Remember that like many of the early Bible stories, this one does not have to be historically true in order to teach us deep, eternal truths about ourselves. Cain’s story, with its family conflicts, its violence and its dodging of personal responsibility, is a lesson for the ongoing story of our nuclear families and of the entire human family. Each time a person, a community, or an entire nation acts with cruelty and refuses to care for our weakest and most vulnerable members, we wind up echoing Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper? Don’t look at me, I’m not responsible!” Yet from Cain’s rhetorical question, an answer emerges, for Cain, for you and for me. God asks Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”  Cain says, “How should I know?  Am I my brother’s shomer, his guardian and keeper?” To which we, the readers, are expected to respond:  yes indeed, you are, we all are each other’s guardians and keepers.

We are not responsible for turning ourselves into dishrags for the sake of humanity. Judaism never expects this from us, and in fact, our Jewish tradition commands that we engage in self-preservation. But self-preservation is not license for dog-eat-dog or for turning blindly from the anguish of others, whether out of apathy, despair, or arrogance. We are not the children of Abel.  He died at his brother’s hand, and his potential offspring died with him. We Jews are part of the children of Israel, the Jewish people. Yet the great masters of human wisdom, from the Torah to Steinbeck, remind us that, indeed, we are also the messy, complicated descendants of Cain, and for better or worse, we humans are all one family. As Cain’s descendants, let’s reflect upon the following questions as we prepare for the year to come.

Will we choose to master or be mastered by our worst impulses, our anger and jealousies, toward others in our immediate and wider human families?

Will we choose, and how will we choose, to cultivate yetzer ha-tov, the inclination to goodness which lies deep within us?

Will we choose hope and take up Adam and Eve’s mission to guard this Garden that we call our planet as well all who live upon it?

Will we choose despair, cynicism and apathy, as did Cain?

Will we choose to treat our fellow human beings with cruelty and hatred as the Other?

Will we rise up to guard and preserve them as our sisters and brothers?

These awful, blessed choices belong to us entirely. I pray that as individuals, families, communities, nations and governments, we make the right ones.

This essay is an excerpt from my forthcoming book “Cain v. Abel,” tentatively set to be published by The Jewish Publication Society.