Yael Leibowitz
Yael Leibowitz

Lessons From a Murderer

Once upon a time there was a boy, who killed his younger brother.

Just like that. Out in the field, in broad daylight.

No one is entirely sure how he killed him. And most aren’t even convinced they know why. Some speculate it was jealousy, and they’re probably right.

We don’t know if the younger brother cried out, or whether he tried to fight back. We don’t know if his death was slow and grotesque, or swift and brutal. We don’t know if the two locked eyes before it was all over, or whether the murderer, felt a pang of regret just as it was too late. We aren’t told any of those details, because all of them are beside the point.

All we know is that there were two boys, and then there was one.

And, we know what happened next.

The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Then [the Lord] said “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you.”

The son of Adam may work The Land as much, and as hard as he wants, but fruitfulness will never come by the sweat of his brow.

You see, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. He separated light from darkness, day from night, and water from dry land. God made order from disorder, function from potential. And then, God created humanity. And He placed humanity on the earth to till and to keep it, to fill and to master it.

And so, the story of Adam and Eve teaches us that we are to take care of The Earth from which we are formed, and on which we tread. It teaches us that we are to preserve the world’s resources, but also to mine them for solutions to problems humanity faces. It teaches us that because humans are formed in the image of God, we are inherently creative, and that our penchant for science and technology is a natural outgrowth of that ingenuity. Penicillin, rocket ships, drip-irrigation, genome sequencing- we live in a world suffused with initiatives that manifest what Adam and Eve’s story teaches.

But the story of Adam and Eve’s sons teaches us something as well. It teaches us that we are also beholden to very nature we manipulate. That the delicate balance that exists between humanity and the natural world is marred when humans don’t behave humanely. That nature is ours to engage with, but that ultimately nature’s toleration of us, is contingent on our behavior.

And this concept, introduced by the Bible, is both revolutionary, and empowering.

Because in ancient times, humans prayed to the gods of the sun, and the storms, and fertility. They believed that capricious gods inhere in nature, and that humanity’s fate rest in those hands. But then the Bible came along and articulated a new way of understanding the ongoing dynamic between humanity and our world, by telling us about the time The Land rejected a murderer.

And it reiterated that radical conception a few chapters later in the story of Noah. Implacable gods don’t feature in the Biblical account of The Great Flood, the way they did in so many of the Bible’s ancient counterparts. Instead, the Bible tells of the waters above collapsing into the waters below because humanity had filled the space between them with corruption and depravity. In place of fickle deities, and unpredictable forces, the Bible tells us of a nature, created by God, that reacts to humanity’s choices. Floods. Famines. Plagues. Bounty. Potency. Balance. The universe calibrates itself, the Bible teaches us, to our ethical standards.

When a virus wreaked havoc across the globe a little over a year and half ago, the children of Adam and Eve reacted the way we know how. We pooled our collective cognitive resources to develop a vaccine and medical protocols that have and will continue to save millions of lives. Virologists, epidemiologists, and public health experts probed microscopic secrets of the universe, analyzed vast swaths of computer-generated data, and articulated strategies they believed would best serve the competing needs of humanity. Mistakes have been made, to be sure. Humanity is, after all, necessarily imperfect. Which is why we persevere.

But what we have seen, and what would serve us well to remember as we begin the story of Genesis anew this week, is the way in which humanity, through it all, discerned the lesson of Cain, as well. As scientists frantically tried to “master the earth,” we also intuited that an equilibrium, somewhere, had been thrown off. We realized, that in our competitive quests, we lost sight of our shared humanity. And that when we allow that to happen, we lose ourselves, and end up drifting, alone, without even realizing that we are doing so. For the first time, perhaps, we understood the punishment of Cain.

You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.

But when we were forced to look up from our wandering, we saw healthcare workers sacrificing in ways that are difficult to fathom, and it anchored us. We looked at our neighbors, and at strangers, and we saw levels of compassion and generosity that reminded us of our deep, basic need for connection. As the cleverest of Adam and Eve’s children tried to best nature, the children of Cain endeavored to reconcile with it, by reconciling with each other.

I would like to imagine that parents everywhere, are proud.

About the Author
Prior to making aliyah in 2014, Yael was a member of the Judaic Studies faculty at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. She has taught continuing education courses at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and served as resident scholar at the Jewish Center Of Manhattan. She is currently teaching at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Learning, and lectures widely on topics in Jewish biblical thought.
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