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Jonathan Tobin: Defending the Right to a Jewish State

Heather Hale: Compliment your kids without giving them big heads

Megan Shauri: 10 ways you are ruining your own happiness

Carolyn Bigda: 8 Best Dividend Stocks for 2015

Kiplinger's Personal Finance editors: 7 Things You Didn't Know About Paying Off Student Loans

Samantha Olson: The Crucial Mistake 55% Of Parents Are Making At Their Baby's Bedtime

Densie Well, Ph.D., R.D. Open your eyes to yellow vegetables

The Kosher Gourmet by Megan Gordon With its colorful cache of purples and oranges and reds, COLLARD GREEN SLAW is a marvelous mood booster --- not to mention just downright delish
April 18, 2014

Rabbi Yonason Goldson: Clarifying one of the greatest philosophical conundrums in theology

Caroline B. Glick: The disappearance of US will

Megan Wallgren: 10 things I've learned from my teenagers

Lizette Borreli: Green Tea Boosts Brain Power, May Help Treat Dementia

John Ericson: Trying hard to be 'positive' but never succeeding? Blame Your Brain

The Kosher Gourmet by Julie Rothman Almondy, flourless torta del re (Italian king's cake), has royal roots, is simple to make, . . . but devour it because it's simply delicious

April 14, 2014

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer: Passover frees us from the tyranny of time

Greg Crosby: Passing Over Religion

Eric Schulzke: First degree: How America really recovered from a murder epidemic

Georgia Lee: When love is not enough: Teaching your kids about the realities of adult relationships

Cameron Huddleston: Freebies for Your Lawn and Garden

Gordon Pape: How you can tell if your financial adviser is setting you up for potential ruin

Dana Dovey: Up to 500,000 people die each year from hepatitis C-related liver disease. New Treatment Has Over 90% Success Rate

Justin Caba: Eating Watermelon Can Help Control High Blood Pressure

The Kosher Gourmet by Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon Don't dare pass over these Pesach picks for Manischewitz!

April 11, 2014

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg: Silence is much more than golden

Caroline B. Glick: Forgetting freedom at Passover

Susan Swann: How to value a child for who he is, not just what he does

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Financial Tasks You Should Tackle Right Now

Sandra Block and Lisa Gerstner: How to Profit From Your Passion

Susan Scutti: A Simple Blood Test Might Soon Diagnose Cancer

Chris Weller: Have A Slow Metabolism? Let Science Speed It Up For You

The Kosher Gourmet by Diane Rossen Worthington Whitefish Terrine: A French take on gefilte fish

April 9, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Samuel G. Freedman: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Jessica Ivins: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Kim Giles: Asking for help is not weakness

Kathy Kristof and Barbara Hoch Marcus: 7 Great Growth Israeli Stocks

Matthew Mientka: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease

Sabrina Bachai: 5 At-Home Treatments For Headaches

The Kosher Gourmet by Daniel Neman Have yourself a matzo ball: The secrets bubby never told you and recipes she could have never imagined

April 8, 2014

Lori Nawyn: At Your Wit's End and Back: Finding Peace

Susan B. Garland and Rachel L. Sheedy: Strategies Married Couples Can Use to Boost Benefits

David Muhlbaum: Smart Tax Deductions Non-Itemizers Can Claim

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E : Before You Lose Your Mental Edge

Dana Dovey: Coffee Drinkers Rejoice! Your Cup Of Joe Can Prevent Death From Liver Disease

Chris Weller: Electric 'Thinking Cap' Puts Your Brain Power Into High Gear

The Kosher Gourmet by Marlene Parrish A gift of hazelnuts keeps giving --- for a variety of nutty recipes: Entree, side, soup, dessert

April 4, 2014

Rabbi David Gutterman: The Word for Nothing Means Everything

Charles Krauthammer: Kerry's folly, Chapter 3

Amy Peterson: A life of love: How to build lasting relationships with your children

John Ericson: Older Women: Save Your Heart, Prevent Stroke Don't Drink Diet

John Ericson: Why 50 million Americans will still have spring allergies after taking meds

Cameron Huddleston: Best and Worst Buys of April 2014

Stacy Rapacon: Great Mutual Funds for Young Investors

Sarah Boesveld: Teacher keeps promise to mail thousands of former students letters written by their past selves

The Kosher Gourmet by Sharon Thompson Anyone can make a salad, you say. But can they make a great salad? (SECRETS, TESTED TECHNIQUES + 4 RECIPES, INCLUDING DRESSINGS)

April 2, 2014

Paul Greenberg: Death and joy in the spring

Dan Barry: Should South Carolina Jews be forced to maintain this chimney built by Germans serving the Nazis?

Mayra Bitsko: Save me! An alien took over my child's personality

Frank Clayton: Get happy: 20 scientifically proven happiness activities

Susan Scutti: It's Genetic! Obesity and the 'Carb Breakdown' Gene

Lecia Bushak: Why Hand Sanitizer May Actually Harm Your Health

Stacy Rapacon: Great Funds You Can Own for $500 or Less

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Ways to Save on Home Decor

The Kosher Gourmet by Steve Petusevsky Exploring ingredients as edible-stuffed containers (TWO RECIPES + TIPS & TECHINQUES)

Jewish World Review

The World’s First Murder: A Closer Look at Cain and Abel — The enigmatic genius of Cain

By Rabbi David Fohrman


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To sophisticated moderns, the Bible can sometimes seem like a collection of fairy tales. No longer.

Combining a careful reading of the text with ancient rabbinic analysis, the author takes us behind the scenes in Scripture, revealing a startling tapestry of meaning in stories that many have written-off as fiction.

As before, he has designed the series to be interactive. You are encouraged to pose questions and offer comments. Try to stump the rabbi — he'll respond!

The second in a series


http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | G-d rejects the offering brought by Cain, preferring instead the gift offered by his brother Abel.


What are we to make of this? As I mentioned last week, most parents take for granted, in theory if not always in practice, that it's not kosher to favor one of your children over another. When it comes to little Bobby and Debbie, everyone knows that Mommy isn't supposed to say she likes Debbie's drawing better than Bobby's — even if Debbie's drawing is prettier. But why, then, does the Almighty seem to do precisely that when it comes to Cain and Abel's gifts?


Some would argue that the Almighty made a "parenting mistake" here. Such a view is rather in vogue lately among contemporary interpreters. In Bill Moyer's nationally televised discussion of Genesis, for example, a fair number of participants were inclined to take this perspective. But the implications of this view are dramatic and harsh, and we might as well be clear about them:


First, it is a tricky business to ascribe errors in judgment to the Almighty. To do so is quite likely heresy from a theological point of view. But even if heresy doesn't scare you, from a simple rational perspective, it seems preposterous to suggest that the Creator of All lacks basic wisdom about parenting. It just is very hard to swallow that the Master of the Universe is less sophisticated about parenting than, say, Dr. Spock or the self-help guru who showed up last week on Oprah to hawk her book.


[It is true, of course, that the Bible itself speaks of G-d "regretting" having made mankind. But the Bible also speaks of the "outstretched arm" of G-d, and few of us are willing to concede that G-d has arms. The Bible uses anthropomorphism with reference to G-d now and then, speaking of the Almighty — a Being whose essence we cannot begin to understand — in human terms that we can understand. When the Bible does so, though, we are getting just a faint approximation of reality. Whatever G-d's "arm" means, it doesn't mean a structure composed of bone and flesh that G-d uses to eat his dinner with. And whatever G-d's "regret" means, it doesn't mean the fairly prosaic emotion that afflicts us mortals when we realize we've made a boo boo. The regret of an all powerful, all-knowing being is of a different nature altogether, and its true meaning is shrouded in mystery.]


Evidently, something is rotten with this comparison to Bobby and Debbie. Somehow, G-d's acceptance of Abel's offering and His rejection of Cain's was not like mommy's preference of Debbie's pretty picture over Bobby's stick figures. Why?


Let's go back to Bobby and Debbie, for a moment, and try to isolate the parenting "sin" that takes place when Mommy tells her kids whose painting she likes better. What, exactly, is she doing wrong?

WHY MY KIDS HATE PLAYING BY THE RULES OF ‘BOGGLE’
The great sin, I think, lies in Mommy's stated or implied comparison of Bobby to Debbie. When Bobby and Debbie compete for Mommy's love, when they ask whose painting she likes better, that question is a trap. The question, even if asked in the spirit of childhood innocence or playfulness, pits two siblings against each other in a terrible battle for the love and approval of their creator. If the parent buys into this game; if he or she agrees to play referee in this great game of combat, he or she has failed before even saying a word. The terms of play are themselves rotten.


This is not to say that it is wrong for Mommy or Daddy to evaluate their kids, or to give or withhold approval — only that it is wrong to judge one kid using the other as a benchmark. The essential point of illegitimacy here is the false sense of competition, the fact that Debby become the measuring stick by which Bobby is judged, the fact that, as a result, neither Bobby's nor Debbie's acts are really being seen as valuable in and of themselves, but only insofar as they measure up or outshine the accomplishments of the other.


There is game we sometimes play around the table with our kids. It is a word game by the name of "Boggle". In "Boggle", each player looks at a grid of letters and has sixty seconds to identify a list of words that emerge from contiguous letters. There is a rule in "Boggle" that all my kids universally hate. The rule is that if all the players around the table have discovered the same word, no one gets any credit for it. Every kid is supposed to just strike those words from their list; they simply don't count. Now, from a strictly utilitarian point of view, this rule makes a lot of sense. It simplifies the process of keeping score. But it's the message behind that rule, I think, which draws my kids' ire. The message is: "what you found, what you discovered, doesn't count if your brother Bobby found it too". Your acts don't have inherent worth or value; they can be "canceled out" by what your siblings do or don't do.

DID CAIN GET COMPARED TO ABEL — OR TO HIMSELF?
Now let's look at the story of Cain and Abel, this time, reading it a little more carefully. Ask yourself: Why did G-d reject the offering brought by Cain? Let's read the text and see what it tells us about each brother's offering:


And in the process of time it happened that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the first of his flocks and of their choicest ones. And the Lord turned to the offering of Abel, but to Cain and his offering He did not turn (Genesis, 4:3-5)


Look carefully, here. The text does say that Abel took "from the first of his flocks and from their choicest ones", whereas with Cain we hear no such detail, only that he brought "of the fruit of the ground". The implication is that Abel offered the best of what he had, whereas Cain simply offered "some of what he had" — average produce, produce that didn't stand out as either the best or worst of what he had.


But ask yourself this deceptively simple question:


When measured against each other, which offering was of a higher quality?


You might be tempted to answer that it was Abel's — Abel brought the better stuff.. But the real answer is: We simply don't know.


Nowhere is there evidence to suggest that Abel's offering was worth more or was superior to Cain's. We know that Abel offered the best of what he had, whereas Cain offered simply "some of what he had" — but we don't know how one offering stacked up against the other. It is entirely possible that Cain's offering was worth more; that his "average" stuff was of a higher quality than the best of what Abel had. We just don't know. The bottom line is: Abel brought the best he could; Cain didn't. Each brother is not compared not to the other, but to himself. What he did is being compared to what he could have done.

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If Bobby and Debbie both show up with pictures for Mommy's birthday, and Mommy discerns that Debbie did the best she could with the picture, while Bobby's picture looks like something he threw together while watching The Simpsons, it is entirely appropriate for Mommy to note this fact. It doesn't matter that Bobby might be the better artist; that, at an art auction, Bobby's absent-minded doodles might fetch a greater price than Debbie's carefully crafted sunset. All that is irrelevant. If Mommy senses that, relative to his own talents, Bobby presented her with something nondescript, she is entitled to feel that something is not right, and to make her feelings known.


All of which brings us to a very important question, and it is this: Why did Cain do what he did? If you're going to bring an offering to G-d already, one would think that one would bring the good stuff. What exactly was Cain thinking?

THE ENIGMATIC GENIUS OF CAIN
In our mind's eye, I think we often construct an inaccurate portrait of Cain. One tends to think of Cain as a grudging imitator of Abel. We imagine, perhaps, that Cain saw his brother bringing an offering to G-d and, not wanting to be outdone, Cain figured he would play along. His heart wasn't really in it, though, so he didn't bring the best of what he had.


THE RABBI RESPONDS
Last week's installment received more than 150 letters. (We stopped counting after that)

Instead of having the rabbi respond to each note individually, we decided a more efficient way would be for him to answer your exceptionally smart and perceptive questions via Real Audio. (Ain't the web grand!?) Doing so also allows us to create an even more interactive community.

Please click HERE for a 16 minute presentation.

As this series was designed to be interactive, we encourage you to challenge the rabbi. Don't feel shy about doing so! Use the link in the bio at the bottom of this article to e-mail him.


But in reality it didn't happen like that. It wasn't Abel who had the brainstorm to bring the first offering — it was Cain. Cain was the originator — the first person in the history of the world to bring an offering to G-d.


It seems strange to say so, but this fact alone qualifies Cain as a kind of spiritual genius. Whatever else one may think of the notion of offerings to G-d, one thing is sure — the idea has stood the test of time. A wheel may seem simple and obvious, but its inventor is a genius. Cain, too, was a kind of genius — he began something, and hundreds of religions representing millions and millions of people have followed suit.


All in all, this makes Cain a much harder figure to peg.

How are we to understand a man who introduces the idea of offerings to the world — but then, when he actually brings this first of all offerings, brings nondescript, average produce? If you are an innovator, you are not likely to be the kind of person who does things halfway. Why does Cain, the bold inventor of offerings, not bring the best of what he has to G-d? Cain's genius is enigmatic indeed.


In broad terms, I think this is perhaps the central challenges the Bible puts before us here: How are we to decipher Cain? Like it or not, the story is not really about Abel. He just gets killed, and we know nothing more of him. It is Cain whose legacy endures. It is Cain whose acts and thoughts are the focus of our story. It is Cain the Torah is asking us to try and understand.

A QUESTION OF PLACEMENT
Our quest to make sense of this story can be helped, I think, by pulling back our zoom lens and getting a broad, landscape view of our narrative. Here's a bit of homework, if you will: Let's take some time to look at the broad context in which our story appears. Is there any meaning in the fact that the Cain and Abel story appears in the Bible precisely where it does?


On one level, there doesn't seem to be anything remarkable about the placement of the story. It comes right after the episode of Adam and Eve in the Garden, presumably because that's when it took place. The narrative appears here because that is its rightful place in the chronology of events. Right?


Well, yes. But sometimes, chronology isn't everything. As we've seen previously (see our earlier series of articles, Serpents of Desire), the links between juxtaposed Biblical stories often run far deeper than the incidental fact that one story happened right before or after another. Stories that appear next to each other in the Bible often shed light on each other in surprising ways.


Is that the case with the Cain and Abel narrative? Is the story of mankind's first murder connected in any essential, meaningful, way to the events that precede it — namely, Adam and Eve's experience with the Forbidden Fruit, and their subsequent banishment from Eden?


Re-read the story carefully, and see if you can find any clues. We'll compare notes next week.

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Rabbi David Fohrman teaches Biblical Themes at the Johns Hopkins University, and directs the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies. His intriguing talks on a wide array of Biblical themes are available on tape and CD at jewishexplorations.com

New at jewishexplorations.com: Listen to Rabbi Fohrman discuss the Book of Jonah! The first of his three lectures on this maddeningly perplexing story is now available, free of charge, in streaming audio.


Previously:

The World’s First Murder: A Closer Look at Cain and Abel

Sure, the Bible is holy, but does it really mean anything?


© 2005, Rabbi David Fohrman