Parshat Bereishit: Desire Crouches at the Door

And the Lord said to Cayin, “Why are you distressed, And why has your face fallen?” (Bereshit 4:6).

Every book is an answer to a question, whether we know it or not. If we have a question about the universe, we will open a science book. If we’re looking to understand the culture of a foriegn country, we would pick up a book of history or sociology.

What questions is the Torah trying to answer? It’s important to ask as we open it anew. Is it a science book that teaches us about the creation of the world? Is it a work of ancient history? Maybe it’s a work of fiction, a book of Jewish myths and fables.

I would say none of the above. Not only that, but if one asks the Torah the wrong questions, the result would be no different then looking in an atlas for dating advice. 

On the simplest level, I believe the Torah comes to answer the question, “Who am I?” It’s a book about the essence of life. It gives us answers about how to confront the challenges of being a human being. And if one reads it that way, looking not for scientific or archeological proof, but rather how can I make the most of the years I’m granted on this Earth, then a very different relationship with the text can emerge. Not to mention the Author. 

And so as we open the Torah with the stories of Adam and Chava, and with their children Cayin and Hevel, we can already see so much about the human condition, including the pitfalls as well as the opportunities for growth.

Immediately after Adam and Chava are exiled from the Garden of Eden, their two sons Cayin and Hevel are born. And though the two brothers are seemingly close in age, they couldn’t be more different. Hevel was a shepherd, living off the milk and wool that his flock provided him whereas Cayin worked the land.

With no prompting, the text tells us that Cayin brought a mincha offering of fruit to God. Seemingly, this was a natural outgrowth of his desire to give, even if the receiver, i.e., God, has no absolute need for the gift. It is an expression of closeness the giver feels towards the receiver.

After seeing the offering of his brother, Hevel too decides to bring an offering to God. But there is a difference in his offering; we’re told that that his offering is from the best of his flock. 

God accepts Hevel’s offering, but not Cayin’s. Strangely, the text does not explain why. What was the problem with Cayin’s offering? We can only speculate.  But we are told about Cayin’s response. The text offers us a powerful image; Cayin’s face fell. The image is universal and gives us all we need to know about his reaction; he feels shame. He feels angry. And he feels hopeless. God sees his reaction, and reaches out to console him.

“And the Lord said to Cayin, “Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, you will be elevated. But if you do not do right, sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master” (Bereshit 4:6-7).

In other words, God is telling Cayin to choose wisely. Cayin, you can learn from this incident, and you can improve. And if you choose to overcome your anger, you will elevate yourself to a level you would not have reached otherwise. Be careful in your choice, because sin crouches at the door. 

Sin, here personified in the text, desires you.

Here the Torah is teaching us a fundamental principle of our humanity. It is not that the human being desires sin, but rather sin that desires the human being. Of course the possibility of evil exists, but it lives in the state of possibility. Only when a person chooses to sin does that evil become manifest and embodied. 

“Yet you can be its master,” God tells Cayin.

This is not a command, but an expression of the power of freewill. Cayin, you can choose to overcome your desires for evil. You are not destined to sin. But it is not an easy task. The possibility of sin is always lurking and waiting to jump. The goal of life is to use freewill to master your desires, and not to become enslaved to them. 

And so too for all of us. We should never look at ourselves as inherently sinful or evil. As we read in this week’s parsha, God created the human being with a Tzelem Elokim, a spark of the Divine. Our core identity is an expression of our Maker.

Yet we are physical beings who have freewill, and we are susceptible to acting against our true nature. The desire to sin is always crouching at the door, looking for an opening, and each one of us experiences that in our own unique way. Missteps are inevitable, but through our mistakes we can elevate ourselves, and reach a higher level then we would have otherwise.

When we read the story of Cayin and Hevel with the implicit question of “Who am I?” we can learn so much about what it means to be human. True, we are fallible, and there are dangers at every turn. Our existence is filled with challenges, and there are consequences for our actions. But we are not intrinsically evil, nor are we destined to sin. We are made in the image of the Divine and given the opportunity to ascend, no matter how far we’ve fallen. 

What do you think? What lessons do you learn about your humanity from the story of Cayin and Hevel?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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