The Absence of Parenting

We begin again our wonderful and endless adventure in reading, studying, discussing, and interpreting Torah. This week’s portion introduces the reader to the mysteries of creation culminating with the first humans who choose to taste moral knowledge and are banished from Eden.

Genesis 4 opens with Adam and Eve becoming the first biblical parents and within two verses, Cain and Abel are born as each claims an identity through work. There is not a single aspect of any biblical narrative about their family or how Adam and Eve behaved as parents.

We quickly realize that Adam and Eve are absent from the text during the drama of Cain and Abel. In fact, there is no mention again of Eve in the biblical text, and Abel appears only in genealogical texts. Eve’s unique behavior in Eden provided humanity with moral choice and provokes later religious to assert a permanent indictment against women.

Adam and Eve’s acquisition of moral knowledge was so unsettling to the Creator, that they were exiled from Eden. Eve shares her taste of the Tree with Adam, and their ‘eyes open’. Yet, after conceiving and birthing the first children in the post-Eden world, the text does not offer us a single reference of parents teaching their children the difference between good and evil. How can a choice that provokes God’s eternal rebuke, that will eventually become translated into Original Sin, not elicit even a few words between parent and child?

Philo, the first Jewish philosopher, (1st century CE) is attributed with this analogy: What God is to the world, parents are to their children. Philo’s unique interpretations of the Hebrew Bible help us to better understand Greek and Roman thought. Hence, this curios aphorism is an affirmation that the ancient world understood parents as having significant responsibilities and power. Parents, for Philo, must be their children’s resource of moral direction, just as God provided the commandments of the Torah.

Is Philo’s philosophical insight diminished by the silence of Adam and Eve to their sons? In the final book of Torah, Deuteronomy 6:7 we are commanded that parents should teach Torah to their children, V’she’nantam, literally repeat it over and over. Maybe both this biblical text and its later inclusion in the daily liturgy, is linked to the stark absence of the primal family learning any of the moral knowledge tasted in Eden.

As Cain tragically attempts to offer God the very first Thanksgiving sacrifice and is rejected, there is a particularly painful ‘silence’ described. “Cain was much distressed and his face bell.” (Genesis 4:5b). Those of us who are parents, can easily imagine consoling even a young adult child; can hear ourselves offering our child comfort and encouragement.

We are reminded of the Jewish proverb: ‘A mother understands what a child does not say’. This proverb underscores the tragic absence of a parent in this narrative. If only Eve had reached out to her first born and explained the unfairness of life and encouraged him to try again. But the biblical text provides only an enigmatic rhetorical question from God, which ignores Cain’s suffering. God’s attempt to console and teach is a Divine failure that may well provoke the first death.

The Rabbinic sages in the Talmud, Sukkah 56b teach: “Abbaye said: Yes, as people say, the speech of a child in the marketplace is learned either from that of his father or from that of his mother.” Were the sages thinking about that ‘broken’ verse, “Cain said to his brother Abel….and when they were in the field….”? We cannot know what the brothers said to each other, but as the Talmud argues, we can imagine that they repeated what they heard at home from their parents. What if Abbaye’s assertion is inverted, that what a child does not hear from their father or their mother also impacts what a child says in the marketplace?

We return to this text, always trying to understand the reason for the first human death. Yet the text refuses to offer any clarity. The first two siblings produced the first death with a narrative that provides a complete absence of conflict which leaves readers forever lost inside their own imaginations. For parents who create siblings, such imaginations are particularly tragic and personalized.

The sages’ maxim is obvious, a child imitates what they learn from their parents, so we must challenge the text: what did Adam and Eve teach their sons? If moral knowledge is their legacy, then surely, they are uniquely responsible for passing that legacy to the very first children created. This assumption cannot be validated nor dismissed, but it remains one of the most painful unanswered questions of the biblical text.

The last parental experience initiated by Adam and Eve, is the inscrutable agony and unique grief that only parents experience.
Adam is warned that eating from the Tree of Moral knowledge will be punished by death (Gen. 2:16), yet this threat is not realized when they are expelled. Cain’s murder of his brother Abel is the first death of a human being, and as a result, the first parents Adam and Eve, are the first to mourn a death.

There is no explanation that will comfort these parents, a son is dead and the other son banished for eternity. The parents did not die for learning the difference between good and evil, but even worse, they had to bury one child and be estranged from the other. Is that why the text is so specific in Gen 4:25- “Adam knew his wife again and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning: God has provided me with another offspring in the place of Abel…” I have always found it profound that Eve’s name is never mentioned again, the woman who brought moral wisdom to humanity, but who vanished as the mother who buried her son.

We leave Adam and Eve in life not in Eden. We leave Adam and Eve parents who like all parents took the ultimate risk of adding to life.

About the Author
Joseph has linked his congregational rabbinate and academic careers with interfaith relations, contemporary philosophy, and serving Jews who are sometimes ignored. He is retired in Rio de Janeiro where he teaches, writes and volunteers his rabbinic time in communities without rabbis. He has written "What Am I Missing? Questions About Being Human"
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