Scripture’s most enduring free-will seminar occurs in this week’s portion of Torah. It involves God and Cain, prior to the murder of Abel. Surprised by Cain’s deep distress over divine attention to Abel’s offering, Cain now has God’s full attention. He has ours too.
God encourages Cain not to let his anger get the best of him. “If you choose to do right, you’ll be uplifted. But if you don’t, sin is crouching at the door; it’s hard-to-resist urge tempts you, but you can overcome it” (Gen 4:7).
Does free choice have a chance amidst gusts of rage? Is there a slim possibility that Cain won’t elect to slay Abel? Yes. Overcoming fierce anger may feel impossible. But it always remains available. Intense emotions do hold monumental power. But they don’t necessarily get the last word.
Perhaps one reason why Cain cannot contain his rage is that doing so alone, without the support of others, can be too much to ask. The Talmud conveys how important helpers are in releasing us from the tight grip of compulsion, “A prisoner cannot release himself from prison.”
God leaves Cain to his own devices. Free-choice will become a vital ingredient in activating goodness. Another key ingredient is the subtle lesson that gets tucked inside a sacred text. A close reading our passage discerns seven mentions of the word brother (Gen. 4:2-11). Seven is a highly significant number in Genesis’s earliest passages in the original Hebrew. The Torah’s first verse contains seven words. The second verse contains fourteen words. The entire seven-day creation narrative contains 469 words (67 x 7). And God appreciates “Behold it is good” on seven occasions. Perhaps the sevenfold repetition of the word brother then may signal the enduring importance of remaining our brother’s keepers.
Being your brother’s keeper can involve gently opening a door, behind which sin may be crouching, to awaken you to unnoticed avenues that are patiently waiting to be met. You might just find that opening the door for someone else can lead you to discover that they have opened a door for you.
As a year of Torah learning begins again this Shabbat from the very beginning, I am moved by the poetic words of Amanda Gorman. “When the mind is free, when we have another look, we see that the books are open.”
Does free will have a chance? Evidence is not encouraging. Yet, God’s enduring message is that it does. How can you know for sure? Just once, make a different choice. Next time. Even later today. As one of Judaism’s gifted speechwriters Sarah Hurwitz notes, “No matter the time, logistics, or expense involved, I have never once regretted doing an act of Hesed (genuine kindness) – and I very much regret moments when I chose not to.”