Cain and the consequences of self-deception. Deep dive into Bereishis

In our deep dive into Parshat Bereishis we finally made it out of Gan Eden. True we were kicked out but at least we are on terra firma.  We are now discussing the world as we know it, not the idyllic world of Gan Eden. Cain and Hevel are the first people we meet in the Torah that, like us, had two parents and will have to face many tests in life. Large and small. They had the free will to pass those tests or fail them.

As we all know Cain came up with the exalted idea to bring a sacrifice to God. His brother copied him. Wouldn’t you know it, God rejected Cain’s sacrifice and accepted the sacrifice of his brother. The commentator, Eitz Yoseph, said that God judges sacrifices by the sincerity in which they were given. According to RASHI, (Bereishis 4:3) Cain gave from the worst of his produce (flax). Cain could have done some soul searching and realized how to improve his relationship with God. However, instead of looking inward he blamed God and Hevel. Cain’s pathetic accusation against God is spelled out in Midrash Tanchuma:

שֶׁאִלּוּ קִבַּלְתָּ קָרְבָּנִי כְּמוֹתוֹ, לֹא הָיִיתִי מִתְקַנֵּא בוֹ.

“If you had just accepted my sacrifice like you accepted his (Hevel’s), I wouldn’t be so jealous of him” (Midrash Tanchuma Parshat Bereishis 9:5)

Cain was filled with rage and jealousy. He was on the way to committing a crime of passion.  God intervened and ran a quick therapy session.  The commentator, Eshed Nechalim, says that when you are emotionally overwhelmed you don’t have time for your intellect to kick in. God slowed down time and let Cain focus on his emotions. God dimensionalized the deadly deed that could be born of his runaway emotions.  All to no avail. 

The self-deception of sin

The purpose of this story is surely to teach us the nature of sin. The first lesson is that when you are confronted by overwhelming emotions, like Cain was, you are most vulnerable. 

רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בַּר אַמֵּי אָמַר

אַשְׁרָיו לְאָדָם שֶׁהוּא גָּבוֹהַּ מִפִּשְׁעוֹ וְלֹא פִּשְׁעוֹ גָּבוֹהַּ מִמֶּנּוּ,…

“Rabbi Berechia in the name of Rabbi Shimon the son of Amei said…’Happy is the person who is in control of their sin, rather than their sin getting the upper hand over him.”’

The Midrash is also interested in how sin seems to sneak up on you by pretending to be a minor nuisance that can’t possibly assert control over you: 

. אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא בַּתְּחִלָּה דּוֹמֶה לְחוּט שֶׁל עַכָּבִישׁ, וּלְבַסּוֹף נַעֲשָׂה כַּקֶּלַע הַזּוֹ שֶׁל סְפִינָה,

“Rabbi Akiva said that it (sin) starts as (weak as) a spiderweb and ends up as strong as a rope of a ship.” (Bereishis Rabbah 22:6) The Midrash also describes it as being like the clever dogs of the Roman Empire. They would pretend to sleep in front of a store full of the food they wanted. Seeing that the dog has no bad intentions, the storekeeper would be lulled into a false sense of security. He too would go to sleep. Then the dog would knock over a pile of bread. In the ensuing commotion he would grab one in his mouth and run off. 

The Midrash delves into another aspect of sin. In some sense, the temptation to sin is not even real. It’s all in our head. The Midrash portrays this in a story of someone who robbed all those who passed by until someone decided to fight back.

, עָבַר פִּקֵּחַ אֶחָד וְרָאָה שֶׁאֵין בּוֹ תּוֹחֶלֶת לִגְזֹל לוֹ כְּלוּם “One wise person realized that the robber was actually a weakling” (Bereishis Rabbah 22:6) He overpowered the robber. Avraham was described as just such a person. He looked at all his temptations to sin and found them to be eminently conquerable. 

What did Cain pretend to be upset about

The Midrash provides many options for the quarrel that ended in the murder of Hevel. They all stem from the fact that Cain took no responsibility for his actions. He saw himself as an innocent victim. He was out for revenge.  However, even in their final encounter, we can learn something about the nature of Cain and Hevel. 

One opinion in the Midrash is that they were fighting about in whose territory the Beit Hamikdash would one day be located. This, of course, is dripping with irony. I believe the Midrash acknowledged it when it used a proof text for the Beit Hamikdash from the word שָׂדֶה. – a field – as in the phrase,

צִיּוֹן שָׂדֶה תֵחָרֵשׁTzion will be plowed under like a field” (Micah 3:12) The Beit Hamikdash was indeed plowed under like a field – because of baseless hatred. Perhaps the antecedents of this hatred can be found right here in the dispute between two brothers. 

Among the other examples the Midrash offered for their dispute was – who gets to marry the first Chava. It seems the original Chava ran away and Adam married a different Chava. The first Chava was still fashioned by God so she was a prize to fight over. Another opinion is that the dispute was over a second twin sister that Hevel was born with. According to the commentary, Perush Maharzu, she was very beautiful. Cain argued that he was the firstborn and had first rights to everything. Hevel said he should have her because God clearly chose him over Cain. Here you catch a glimpse of a flaw in Hevel’s character as well. Instead of trying to defuse his brother’s anger he poured fuel on the fire.

A recipe for disaster.

If we step back for a moment we see an amazing array of stumbling blocks that were thrown at Cain. Humiliation, degradation and jealousy. If that’s the nature of God’s tests in the post Edenic world, it can be quite discouraging. Yet there is a pattern of self-deception that threads it’s way through the story. It started with the arrogance of thinking that it was acceptable to bring an inferior sacrifice to God. To make matters worse, instead of considering the possibility that he was at fault, Cain blamed everything on God and his brother. The Midrash describes the deception of the final moments.  Hevel was much stronger than Cain. Sensing that his brother intended to harm him, Hevel actually pinned Cain down. 

אָמַר לוֹ שְׁנֵינוּ בָּעוֹלָם מָה אַתְּ הוֹלֵךְ וְאוֹמֵר לְאַבָּא, נִתְמַלֵּא עָלָיו רַחֲמִים, מִיַּד עָמַד עָלָיו וַהֲרָגוֹ

“He (Cain) said (to Hevel) ‘there are only 2 of us in the world, how will you explain (my death) to our father?’ (Hevel) was immediately filled with pity for him.” We don’t know who Hevel pitied, his weaker brother Cain, his father, or both. Either way, Hevel, out of pity, let go of his grip on Cain. Like the story of the dogs in Rome, Hevel let down his guard. That’s when Cain killed him. 

At first, sin helps us deceive ourselves into thinking that we did nothing wrong. That leads to the mistaken notion that we are justified in taking revenge, by any means necessary. 

The Midrash is giving us a stark warning.  We are most vulnerable to sin when we take on the same characteristics of sin – self-deception.


About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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