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What Did Cain Do Wrong?

Many have speculated on Hashem’s reasons for accepting Abel’s offerings and rejecting Cain’s: using the text alone, Hashem’s rejection of Cain’s offering almost seems arbitrary. The differences in the text or the Torah are minimal: we know only that Cain brought from his fruits, and Abel brought firstlings from his flock.

What if the answer is that not offering the first fruit reveals a fundamental error in Cain’s desired relation with G-d? If this is true, then Hashem may have given us the commandment of bringing bikkurim (offering first fruits at the Mishkan or Temple) as a way to counterbalance Cain’s sin – a sin that led to hatred and murder, in contradistinction to bikkurim which are designed to generate joy, intimacy, celebration between ourselves, our community and Hashem. Let’s pursue this line of thinking by studying the story of Cain and Abel more carefully.

The human desire to insulate ourselves from the unknowable and seemingly capricious forces of nature (wind and rain and sun, etc.) has, from time immemorial, led to different forms of attempted appeasement. In the Torah, Cain is the first to bring an offering of any kind, and his offering, as described in the Torah, resembles something quite like a tax, a percentage, or even, in the vernacular, protection money. Paying a percentage of our winnings to a deity suggests that the deity actually desires the thing being offered. In other words, the deity is, in some way or another, subject to human physical cravings, and so can be won over by us sharing our winnings.

This is, in a nutshell, at the heart of pagan belief. And Hashem has been trying to cure us of this misperception, ever since Cain first offered from his fruits. As a result, Hashem refuses the offering. In contrast, he accepts the offering of Abel – the brother who brought from the first of his flock.

The difference between the first and the later fruits, as well as animals, is that the first animals and crops are NOT the best. They tend to be weaker and smaller and more fragile. They don’t taste as good, and they do not grow as well. So why does Hashem want them? Not because He is hungry or craves appeasement by mankind. Hashem wants us to offer our firstlings specifically because it is an acknowledgement that all creation ultimately is a gift from Hashem, and the first of every generation of animal or crop shows the power of new creation at work.

As such, Abel’s offering showed some connection to the underlying purpose of sacrifices as described in the Torah: we give to Hashem because the giving of gifts, done properly, is more instructive and meaningful for the giver than for the recipient. Hashem is not hungry, but He knows that mankind has a desire to find a way to show appreciation for the things we have been blessed with, and we also seek ways to move forward even after committing mistakes and errors. When we invest and then give, in order to further a relationship instead of merely buying divine protection, then we are sacrificing in a productive and good way.

In this sense, a sacrifice is not even necessarily expensive; giving the first fruits may well be a way of seeing that it is the thoughts that count. Giving token sacrifices (such as the first fruits) are sort of like Hallmark Cards; we acknowledge and appreciate, and do it as gracefully as possible.

So Hashem may have realized that the purpose underlying Cain’s offering was not proper, and He rejected it, and Cain became angry:

Why are you angry, said Hashem to Cain, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you refuse to do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; you are its object of desire, but you must master it.[1]

Hashem was deeply concerned, not just because Cain misunderstood the purpose of a sacrifice but also because Cain was enraged at Hashem’s response. Hashem is telling him that if he doesn’t control his rage, “sin is crouching at your door.” This is, after all, the first sin named in the Torah, the sin of loss of control, of acting with animalistic fury.

With benefit of hindsight, we know that Cain is not in an educable mood. Clearly he was out of control: only someone who is not thinking straight would ignore advice from the Creator of the World! So Cain rejected that opportunity. As we know, Cain funneled his rage into a pre-meditated murder of his own brother.

Two enormously important and foundational principles come out of the story of Cain and Abel. The most obvious and famous one, of course, is that murder is bad, that we are indeed “our brother’s keeper.” This is so obvious to most people that the Torah never belabors the point beyond the Ten Commandments.

The other foundational principle sets the scene for much of the Law given in the Torah, those laws dealing with sacrifices, as well as many other edicts given to us that are designed for us to learn to relate to and love Hashem, as opposed to treating him as a Powerful but ultimately impersonal mafia don seeking his percentage.

Among all of these sacrifice laws, there is one that provides the greatest contrast with Cain’s offering: the commandments of the bikkurim, the first fruits offered at the tabernacle or temple. Indeed, we would argue that bikkurim were commanded specifically because of the first person who did NOT bring bikkurim – Cain himself.

The process of collecting first fruits demanded that the farmer examine his crop or fruit trees carefully, even daily, to be able to identify when the flower of the first fruit appeared, and he would tie a bow next to the blossom. Unlike Cain who did not offer first fruits, and may have gathered his offering without the proper intention, farmers would take the proper amount time with their process. We learn that there are reasons for us to take our time in following a process dedicated to Hashem.

Other reasons for the intense attention of the farmer to his crops was that the first fruits were not necessarily the most beautiful, or ripest, or largest; they only needed to be the first. The purpose of the offering was to acknowledge that Hashem, with the land, rains, sun and his blessings, had worked with the farmer to produce the crop, and the farmer wanted Hashem to know how very happy and grateful he was for the results of their shared work. The farmer would place the first fruits in a basket, present them to the priest at the Mishkan or temple and make the following declaration:

So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.[2]

In addition, if the farmer had to sell his produce before reaching Jerusalem, Hashem instructed him to use the funds (as he would also do once he sold his produce in Jerusalem), to join with the community in celebration with food and drink.

Therefore, in Hashem’s providing this mitzvah of the bikkurim, He ensured that the people understood a number of important premises of this offering: (1) that the offering was an expression of heartfelt gratitude to Hashem for his help in producing the crops; (2) that the bikkurim were not a payoff to Hashem for their good fortune; and (3) that the declaration they made when they arrived to give the offering to the priest reinforced their commitment to and ownership of the process. Finally, we are reminded that all offerings were not for Hashem’s benefit, but for our own. We grow closer to Hashem when we acknowledge our love and gratitude to Him, and to those in the community who are also offering bikkurim and celebrating with us.

All of this is in stark contrast to Cain’s offering: Cain’s offering of “protection money” led to anger and jealousy and sin. It led to murder. The commandment to bring bikkurim, as well as the way in which the Jewish people followed this commandment, is almost exactly the opposite: we bring a token of our appreciation, and it leads to joy and sharing and blessings. Bikkurim are a time of festivity and shared joy between the Jewish people, as well as between ourselves and the source of all creative power, Hashem.

In contrast, we offer protection money when we are forced to, when we are afraid of what might happen if we fail to pay up. This is hardly surprising: power imbalances must be respected, and most people acknowledge that powerful people tend to abuse that power over others. So Cain’s offering was ultimately an acknowledgement that Hashem is powerful. From Hashem’s perspective, Cain’s offering clearly missed the entire point of mankind’s creation in the first place. Hashem did not create us to simply pay extorted divine taxes. He created us, as the Torah shows us time and again, to grow and love and seek relationships. Bringing the Hallmark Card “first fruits” is a way to do that. It shows our understanding of the power of symbols and consideration, as opposed to our fear and abject terror in the face of ultimate power. Hashem craves a relationship wherein mankind calls Hashem “husband and not master.”[3] Clearly, Hashem wanted us to acknowledge his power, but also to realize that we are His partners in the world of creation.

Thus, although Cain sinned, he provided Hashem with the opportunity to teach us the meaning of heartfelt sacrifices, and how to deepen our relationship with Him.

  1. Genesis, 4:6-7

  2. Deut., 26:5

  3. Hosea, 2:16

Comments are welcome!

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