When I helped guide a young Christian business associate through a spiritual crisis, little did we know that it would result in a life-altering book. The Weight of Gold brings out the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice, showing that the Torah is indeed the User’s Guide to the human soul. Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text.
And God said, Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” – Genesis 1:26
To write usefully about the mysterious opening section of Genesis – the first weekly Torah portion in the annual cycle – we must be open to uncovering what this text will show us about God. Throughout our exploration of the Torah, we shall try to follow the text where it leads us, rather than forcing the Torah to confirm the dogmas that surround us.
God creates the world with speech – what the rabbinic literature calls the “Ten Utterances” – Let there be light, Let there be a firmament, and so on. The one time God pauses is before creating the human where, rather than merely saying, “Let there be a man,” God says, “Let us make man.” God seems to need a moment to think it over before creating Adam.
Whom is God addressing, then, with the word “us”? The interpretation of God’s invitation, “Let us make man,” favored by the rabbis is that God is asking the angels to comment. And the angels bring a slew of objections: Humans will act wickedly; they will reject Your commandments; they will bring evil and destruction into the world; they will disobey You, and ultimately they will reject You entirely. Yes, says God. But they won’t all do all these terrible things all the time. And anyway, I have decided to make them.
So the God of this aspect of Creation is the God who for some unknowable reason pauses before creating humans, perhaps because God needs to consider in advance the fact that, unlike every other aspect of Creation, humans are programmed to be unpredictable. Perhaps, as we shall see over and over as we delve deeper into subsequent passages of this remarkable book, no less unpredictable than their Creator. It may be our very unpredictability which most reflects God’s likeness.
But it is also intriguing to read this verse as addressed not to the angels, but to us. To the reader. In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English novels we come across phrases such as “gentle reader,” or “dear reader.” The Torah seems to be likewise inviting us to engage in the creative process, to make us active readers. “Let us make a protagonist,” God says to us. “You and I,” says the Torah. “Together, we shall make humanity in our image and in our likeness.” Humanity as the central character, a protagonist that makes sense to us, the readers. Because the reader must fully identify with the characters in a book, otherwise the book will not thrive and its message will be lost.
The Torah is inviting our involvement. “I’ve made everything up to here,” says God. “From now on, you and I will craft this narrative together.” The story of humanity – and it begins to emerge here – is a shared creation, told jointly by God and by us.
What kind of person will we create?
Adam and Eve
Let’s begin with a key point that underlies so much that happens throughout the Bible: God has a hard time communicating clearly to humans. Indeed, the fundamental task of the Torah is to get us on God’s wavelength. It’s frequently unsuccessful, as we see in the defining first act of disobedience: Eve and Adam eating the fruit, which arises from a failure of communication.
God tells Adam that on the day Adam eats the fruit, “you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). From God’s perspective, our death is the consequence of the eating of the fruit. To say that God exists outside of time means that God sees inseparably both the action and its consequence. But humans are time-bound, and when the consequence does not occur simultaneously with the act, we don’t believe they are connected. In this way, Eve – and perhaps Adam – come to disbelieve God’s message. This disconnect, this type of communication failure, occurs repeatedly throughout the Torah. God is challenged to communicate in a way that we can understand, while we are challenged to see the world, and our actions, from God’s perspective. It’s not clear which of us has a more difficult task.
Our relationship with time necessarily gives rise to our freedom of choice: as we can’t do more than one thing at a time, we must choose. And every act we choose leaves behind countless acts we will never be able to perform. If we follow the axiom that God can do only good – which the text itself will invite us to question – then it is precisely our quality of free choice that gives rise to evil in the world. Not by our choosing evil, but because it is impossible for all humans to always choose harmoniously, and this gives rise inevitably to conflict.
As arose between Cain and his brother.
Cain and Abel
The Cain and Abel narrative lies at the heart of the biblical narrative. If God had to pause to consider all the ways in which humans might exercise free choice, then certainly Cain killing his brother Abel is the most unpredictable occurrence in the opening chapters of Genesis. In terms of narrative and literary themes, the trajectory of the Written Torah – and of much of the rest of the Bible thereafter – is a working-out of the story of Cain and Abel.
Cain is the firstborn of humanity. Cain and his brother Abel are the first human beings; the first people to be born of a father and a mother. Recognizing his status, and with the dawning awareness that he is able to feed himself by God’s intervention through the process of growing crops, Cain thanks God with a gift. We can truly say that Cain invents religion.
But things don’t work out as planned, because his kid brother elbows his way in with a much nicer gift: the firstborn of the flock, fresh from the birthing season. The simplest reading of this story is that Cain brought his offering – spontaneous though it was – as an afterthought (4:3): “And it was at the end of the time period” (likely meaning the end of the season; the growing was done and the fresh produce had been eaten, and Cain brought only what was left over) “… and Cain brought an offering to God.” And in the very next verse, “And Abel also brought.” Although God does indeed favor Abel’s offering, it seems that the issue is not the superior offering of the firstlings of the flock over the musty old leftover fruits. Rather, Cain eats his way through an entire year’s produce and then decides it would be good to thank God. Abel, on the other hand, acts immediately. Before he even shears or eats from his flocks, the first thing he does is make an offering to God. What God seems to prefer is not the quality of the offering – though Abel’s gift is superior – but the quality of the one bringing the offering. The latecomer, Abel, wins out over the enthusiastic Cain, who thought up the idea in the first place.
This is the traditional interpretation: Cain was selfish and gave God the leftovers; Abel was utterly selfless and gave of the very best. Cain grew vegetables and ate them; Abel cared for the sheep, even though God had not permitted humans to eat meat. Thus, Cain’s activity was selfish, and Abel’s was selfless. But there’s a disconnect, because God tells Adam (3:17–19) that the ground is cursed for Adam, that Adam must toil and work the land all the days of his life: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread until you return to the earth, because you were taken from it; because you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Cain is merely doing what God foretold to Adam, tilling the soil to win his bread by the sweat of his brow. Seen from the perspective of God’s own injunction, Cain’s offering seems excessively generous; perhaps Cain’s offering is an acknowledgement and acceptance of the paradox of existence, of serving a God both who brings us to life, yet who also causes our life to end.
“What are you so upset about?” God asks Cain. “Don’t you know that you can improve if you try?” (4:6, 7). Cain takes God’s words as a rejection; God has difficulty sending the right message in a way that Cain can grasp. God seems to be giving Cain a pep talk, trying to inspire him to higher achievement. But as all motivational speakers know, “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.” There’s no such thing as a message falling on deaf ears. The question is whether the message that is transmitted is also the one that’s received. All Cain hears is criticism, and all he sees is God enjoying the savory stew prepared by his younger brother. Not for the last time, the second-born has usurped the place of the firstborn, a key aspect of the Cain/Abel theme running throughout the Torah. Abel brushes his brother aside, bringing God an offering from his flock. We shall see exactly this same story play out later when Jacob supplants his older brother by bringing their father Isaac a pot of lamb stew.
God’s problems communicating with humans stem from God’s expectation that we will do as God wishes. Meanwhile, it turns out that Cain’s offering was not only about thanking God. When God doesn’t get excited about Cain’s offering, Cain is upset. When he sees that God is delighted with Abel’s offering, Cain goes into an unquenchable rage. He is quick to act on his frustration and unfettered by notions of morality (see 3:7–21; the only thing humans have been troubled by was the sudden awareness of their nakedness). He rises up and kills Abel.
Both God and Cain are struck by the enormity of the deed. Cain suffers because he has discovered, too late, that he was responsible to protect and care for his brother, and that killing his own brother is an irreversible act. Cain is the first among us to confront evil. God, too, is suffering. In God’s mind, notions of human good and evil are products of right or wrong choice: Don’t eat the fruit. Don’t turn nakedness from its pure, natural state into the state of lust and uncontrolled desire. But life and death are God’s unique domain. God never conceived that people would slay one another: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth!” God says (4:10). Cain’s anguish is that he realizes he has done wrong. God is in shock over how easy it is for us humans to usurp God’s most important role as bringer of life and death.
And now, for the first time, a human being suffers remorse and openly shrieks his agony before God, begging for help that he knows can never come. Unlike his parents, who pass the blame along to the next person, and then to the serpent (see 3:12–13), Cain steps up before God and wails acknowledgment of his act. He confesses his sin and asks, not for forgiveness – which he seems to recognize is impossible – but for some way of bearing up as he lives out the rest of his miserable life roaming the world.
Speaking technically, Cain experiences remorse, he confesses his sin before God, and he has learned the lesson and resolved that he will behave differently in the future. These are the prescribed steps in the process of returning to God as ordained by the rabbis. Cain, for all his mistakes – or because of them – is the first human to go through the process of repentance.
God has much to learn about the unpredictable nature of humanity. It is not until God meets God’s own spiritual friend, Moses, that the full relationship between God and Creation will flourish.
There is so much here, and on so many levels, and it will reverberate again and again throughout the text. But if there is one lesson to be found on these first few pages of the book of Genesis, it is that none of us is wholly sufficient unto ourselves. It seems that even God in some way required something alongside God, or outside of God, or not-God – something to which, or to whom, God could relate. And all the attempts on the part of thousands of years of religious thinkers to “prove” that God is uniquely self-sufficient continually beg the question, Why Are We Here? Not why, from our point of view; why, from God’s point of view. Why does God want us? Why does God need us?
If there is any purpose to life, then it must be that each one of us has a purpose. If there is more than one person in this world, it must be that each person has a unique purpose. And if someone near me seems to be fulfilling what I expected to be my purpose, it must be not that he is stealing my purpose – my blessing – but that I still need to search to fulfill my role in this world.
It’s so basic, so fundamental – and so difficult for us to remember, much less to live by: Don’t hold yourself to someone else’s standard. Don’t compare yourself to others; compare yourself to what your self is capable of. Our job is to devote our lives to realizing our God-given potential in light of our innate abilities, the circumstances surrounding us and over which we have no control, and our own ideas and ambitions.
Instead of being angry that God accepted Abel’s offering, Cain might have said, “Wow! My very own brother – and God accepted his offering!” Cain might simply have said, “I’m so glad someone got it right!” Instead, Cain’s focus and desired outcome was not on giving thanks to God. It was on God’s giving thanks to Cain and praising him in acknowledgment of his giving thanks to God. It’s so important for us to be clear about our motivation.
May we be blessed to be on a path of true discovery; may we find what it is within ourselves that can most be brought forth to change the world – and what it is within us that blocks that. And may we be able to clear away our ego and serve God and one another with a pure heart. For we serve God well when we strive to clarify our true purpose in life, and we serve God best when we serve others.
Yours for a better world