Don’t Let It Drag You Down

Parshat Bereishit is about beginnings. For many modern Bible scholars that means that the stories told about the beginnings of the world and the lives of the first humans are etiological, namely, they explain how the world got the way it is. And so, the story of Adam and Eve tells us not only about the life of the first couple but also, among other things, why there is pain in child birth and why snakes have no legs. Explanations of what we are intended to learn from the complicated relationship between the two first siblings, Cain and Abel, have also been explained in like manner. Some have seen in this story an explanation of the origins of murder or fratricide; others the origins of contention between those who raise livestock versus those who work the land. To my mind, there is a more profound lesson to be found in this story. Let’s call it the etiology of the self-help manual.

Many have opined that God prompted the animosity between the two brothers. No doubt they are right. But isn’t that the nature of the world? Cain offered vegetarian fare; Abel, fleishigs. God preferred the later. One person succeeds; another fails. A lesser candidate wins; the better loses. One candidate wins the popular vote; the other the electoral college.

Cain offers us an option for how to respond to being on the losing side: “Cain was very incensed, and his face fell.” (Gen. 4:5) God immediately understood Cain’s condition, offering incisive advice. {After all, if God doesn’t grasp the human condition, who will?): “Why are you incensed, and why is your face fallen? For whether you offer well, or whether you do not, at the tent flap sin crouches and for you is its longing but you will rule over it.” (4:6-7 Alter translation)

God’s words, while not simple to follow (as we shall soon see), offer great advice. Living in the world brings with it challenges and it will not always be the case that we will be on the winning side. Cain lost out. His offering was not chosen but the only one capable of perpetuating that loss was Cain. If disaster was to visit Cain’s door step, only Cain could open the door and let it in. God offered an alternative. Cain, God seems to say: You are capable of mastering your response. You can turn your personal loss into an opportunity with a positive outcome.”

Of course, we know the outcome of the story. Cain does not choose to take God up on his advice. Instead, he decides to play the victim, overwhelmed by his sorry fate, and does the unthinkable, by murdering his brother, Abel. The outcome is disaster.

Understandably, the option offered by God was not a simple one. Where does one find the resilience and strength of will to take the pent-up anger and frustration prompted by a difficult situation and flick the miraculous “switch” to transform from being a victim into someone capable of controlling one’s destiny? How can we fashion from a personal tragedy a new beginning?

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav offers us an interesting insight into this problem. He notes that the remedy can be found in a changed perspective. What leads a person astray is the pursuit of personal honor. When that “honor” is challenged, the focus becomes its restoration. If, on the other hand, the focus becomes on doing what brings God honor, then not only will the potential “sin” be conquered, but the person’s dignity will be restored with a greater sort of honor – that which stems from doing what is good for God. (See Likutei Moharan 6)

This changed perspective has the reward of giving a person a positive perspective – one focused on building rather destroying, optimism rather than pessimism, and ultimately a chance for a new beginning.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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