10/27/19: Reflections on the Pittsburgh Massacre

Parshat Bereishit introduces the first sin against God as well as the first crime of man against man when Kayin murdered his brother Hevel (4:8).  The text of the Torah specifies that words were exchanged immediately prior to this fratricide, but leaves the substance of this exchange noticeably hidden: “And Kayin spoke to his brother Hevel, then they were in the field and Kayin rose against Hevel his brother and killed him”.  We are left wondering, what words were said?

The Midrash (Bereishit Rabah) fills this lacuna by offering three possibilities.  The first is that they were discussing the division of their ownership of the world.  They decided that one of them would own all of the real estate, and the other would take the movable property.  A debate ensued as one tried to evict the other from his land, while the other claimed his brother’s clothing. A second view is offered by the Midrash in the name of Rav Levi who believes that they divided the world in half, but debated whose half should ultimately host the Temple.  A third possibility is suggested by Rav Huna who speculated that Hevel was born with a twin sister who was the only female alive, aside from their mother. Kayin argued that he should marry her since he was older, while Hevel claimed that since he shared the womb with her, he had a stronger claim.

Rav Yehuda Amital and Nechama Leibowitz both noted that the subjects of these three debates have been the root of countless wars and acts of violence from the day of creation until today: land/money, religion, and sexual attraction.  People have cared so much about these values that we have been willing to kill each other in our pursuit of maximizing their share. All three views in the Midrash suggest that the words spoken between Kayin and Hevel were significant and instructive. They are to teach of the dangers of our desires and obsessions; we see the consequences that can naturally emerge and we are to never repeat the mistakes of the ancestors of humanity.

The question that begs itself is why the Torah omitted the substance of the words that were spoken.  This lesson would have been conveyed more clearly had the Torah itself presented the profound lessons that were later explicated through the Midrash, as highlighted by contemporary scholars.

Unless the omission itself teaches an even more profound lesson.

Often we mistakenly think that the root of a conflict lies in the words that are spoken, whether it is financial, religious, or passion.  However, there is often a deeper question: do we see the world as a place that can accommodate another person(s) who is different than ourselves?  Can we tolerate the other who has a different disposition, appearance or point of view? Or do we see ourselves and our opinions as too compelling to allow for an other?  The Torah omitted the words that were spoken in order to teach us that the words were not the central issue; the cause of the murder was the way that the brother perceived themselves and each other.

We often think that the land is too small to be shared by all those who claim it and there is not enough money available for us all to have what we want.  We think that mutually exclusive religious views make coexistence an impossibility. The Torah highlights the fact that people who are willing to make space for the other will always have enough resources to share.  Conversely, people who do not value the other will never find space for compromise. It is not the words that matter but the attitude that underlies their relationship. Once Kayin was driven by anger and contempt in verse 5, the words spoken in verse 8 were essentially irrelevant, and therefore omitted in the Torah.

A year has passed since eleven praying Jews were gunned down in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in an unusually deadly act of antisemitism.  Not only did this mark an escalation in antisemitic violence, but it also began a string of terrorist shootings. We subsequently witnessed an unprecedented pattern of deadly attacks in houses of worship and malls throughout the United States and the world.  Each attack was driven by its own ideology, but all shared the failure to learn this basic lesson that the Torah teaches in its very first portion: that the world is bigger than ourselves and we need to make room for the other, even those who we passionately disagree with.  As we remember these martyrs, we also pray that this foundational lesson will be learned by our generation so that we can elevate our society and provide a safer world for the generation that is to come.

About the Author
Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz is the rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tefillah of Teaneck and teachers at the Ramaz Upper School where he serves as Talmud Department Chair and as Director of Judaic Studies and Religious Life.
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