My baby book, kept up by my mother for the first 3 years of my life, tells an apocryphal story: sometimes, when I didn’t want to give her a kiss, she would enlist one from one of my two older sisters, and I would immediately run up to give her one as well. And it apparently worked every single time.
Nothing life threatening here, or too filled with jealousy, or even bad – I was, after all, finally rushing to share love.
But there are those who think that sibling rivalry, rather than religion, or Oedipal complexes, or borders, is what provokes violence and damages relationships and society, and certainly, Breisheit, that very first portion in the very first book of the torah, which we start reading again today, supports that message. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi, quotes French scholar Rene Girard’s classic work, Violence and the Sacred, where Girard posits that 1) the primary religious act is sacrifice; 2) sacrifice is always an attempt to curb violence within society; and 3) the primary source of violence is sibling rivalry. Girard claims that the origin of violence is “memetic desire” – the desire to BE someone else, to HAVE what they have.
I wanted what my sisters had – pretty much always. To stay up as late. To get to go to see Ben Hur. To get to study what they studied. To get to play with them and THEIR friends.
I watched the sibling relationships of my friends. I watched the sibling relationships within my larger family. Because, as the youngest, I didn’t often get what I wanted from my sisters. But they also had their own sibling rivalry with each other and with me.
We keep replaying the Cain and Avel story over and over again. Cain brought an offering from the fruit of his labor, his fields, and Avel brought an offering – described as the choicest of the firstlings from his flock. God paid heed to Avel and that choicest of his flock, and none to Cain, who was much distressed…
How often do we feel that sense of rejection? That sense that Mom always liked you best? That God always preferred those other people, who were maybe seemingly blessed?
And here God tries to teach Cain a lesson – one can imagine a dad trying to teach this lesson: be satisfied in yourself. If you’ve done right, that should be enough. And if the sinful urge is upon you, it’s up to you to control yourself. But does this parent give the child the tools to control himself with? Or does Cain feel some shame – after all, maybe his offering was not the choicest of his crop. That’s Rashi’s position.
But the Netziv (R. Naftali Zvi Berlin, head of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva, died 1892) posits that what happened was that Cain was upset because he had to work so hard for his produce, whereas the life of a shepherd and its products were more luxurious, and so he, the creator of the simpler life, was more deserving. His sense of fairness was strong, and riled up by God not paying heed. How many of us have felt our sense of fairness being violated? And have gotten angry, disappointed, or expressed some form of road rage, as a result?
Through the rejection of his offering, the torah, according to Netziv, is telling us that both the simple and the more material life choices can both be fine — as long as either or both are directed toward a life devoted to the service of God (however we define it). You don’t have to be a Spartan or an ascetic to be the servant of the most holy.
But you DO have to learn to curb your yetzer hara, your inclination to give in to your passions, your sense of unfairness.
That’s the test, every time. You can live in luxury, you can live in a cabin in the woods that you have to ski or hike in and out of. Either is fine with God, but you DO have to control your violent urges…
And the Torah teaches us how… as do the rabbis… In one of the most famous passages in the Talmud, Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.5, they tell us how to put the fear of God into witnesses in death penalty cases. After they ban making assumptions, or relying on hearsay, or just believing you can get away with it, they explain that once you’ve lied in a capital case, and the person has been executed, there is no turning back, no way to make amends. The witness, the rabbis tell us, is answerable for the blood of the person wrongly condemned and for the blood of the offspring that would never be born – until the end of the world. Verse 10 tells us Cain’s brother’s bloods cry out… his blood and the blood of each person who would not be born… until the end of time.
Because to destroy a person is to destroy a whole world… it comes from this verse and this situation.
Uncontrolled sibling rivalry can lead to this. And so when you read the 10th commandment – thou shalt not covet, this story is also the prooftext for that. Cain, with his inability to control his yetzer hara, his evil inclination, his passions, serves as the prototype for why such a commandment was necessary. Since the beginning of time…
And how many of us sometimes witness – or experience – those results of uncontrolled sibling stuff? How much of it is genetic, how much nurture, how much unmet needs that no parent could meet?
And yet, I have seen families where the sibs DO overcome their families – most families’ – past experiences. One of my cousins has succeeded with her three now adult daughters – beyond my wildest hopes… so I know it CAN be done, but requires great attention, great investment, great awareness – the ability to recognize as God told Cain – You CAN be master of your urges…
As we start this journey through the torah again, as we rewind and rethink, I pray that each of us looks at what our tasks are in controlling our urges, and I invite you to study with me to do the work.
Marian Blanton says
I am curious about how you are able to recall sources which have spoken on the parasha at hand, enabling you to bring so much additional wisdom together alongside your personal experiences related to subject being examined. Is there a cross-reference source encyclopedia which can easily be accessed for writing your drashes?
Meredith Cahn says
We had just studied the mishnah in a session about the death penalty… and I read a lot of different commentaries on the parasha…