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Breishit 5766

By: Rav David Milston


Email Shiur – Parashat Bereishit - Rav Milston


The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 117:1) tells us that even though we begin mentioning rain (‘mashiv haruach umorid hagashem’) on Shemini Atzeret, we do not actually ask for rain (‘vaten tal umatar’) until the seventh day of Cheshvan (in Israel). In contrast when we stop mentioning rain on the first day of Pesach, we simultaneously cease to ask for rain. The source of this halacha is in Taanit (10a). The Mishna tells us that we refrain from requesting rain on Shemini Atzeret in order to allow those traveling home from Yerushalayim after the chagim enough time to reach their destination before the rain begins. 


Yet the question that surely needs to be asked is why do we not similarly refrain from asking for rain fifteen days before Pesach in order to assure those making their way to Yerushalayim a comfortable journey?


There are many possible answers to this question; however I would like to suggest that these halachik rulings reflect the state of mind of Am Yisrael at two very different times of the year.


As we leave our mitzvah-filled month of Tishrei to the apparent wilderness of Cheshvan and most of Kislev, we often feel anti-climax, disappointment, even emptiness. We have been so totally involved in Hashem since that first night of selichot over a month ago, that now when we find ourselves entering the ‘routine’ period of winter we seem lacking. The month of Nisan is the antithesis; having made it through our ‘spiritual winter’, we enter the spring with enthusiasm and excitement, ahead of us are Pesach, Shavuot, and the summer months.


In Eretz Yisrael we need the rain, and we need every single drop, we ask for rain until Pesach begins, we are not worried about rain deterring those traveling to Yerushalayim for chag because they are so excited in their anticipation, so enthused having emerged from winter in tact, that no weather can affect their morale. In stark contrast, in the aftermath of Sukkot, Am Yisrael making their way back to their respective homes have ‘little to look forward to’, morale is potentially down, and it would only make matters worse if they had to make their way home through storms and rains.


To my mind the essence of Simchat Torah is relating to exactly this issue. Jewish life is made up of special experiences and routine. The special experiences give us periodic infusions and strength to keep us going, but it is during the long periods of routine that we really achieve. In the Yeshiva world, the ‘serious’ term is winter zman. It is during the winter months when there are no arba minim, no matzot, no sukkah, and no shofarot, that we really define our true relationship with the Almighty. When we leave Yerushalayim after Shemini Atzeret we must leave on a high! Not with low morale but with newly invigorated enthusiasm, this year will be better, even more spiritual than the last. When we leave at the end of Tishrei, as we enter routine, our Rabbis want us to leave with the same intent and excitement that we had during Simchat Bet Hashoeva.  Simchat Torah signifies to us that even though we now leave the chagim behind, we march towards the winter with the Torah in our hands, the Torah is always with us, and it is the Torah that truly defines our long-term relationship with Hashem. So even though winter has officially begun, we extend the atmosphere of the chagim for a further two weeks, so that we arrive back at our respective homes on a high, ready to put into action all of those new resolutions that we made over the last few weeks.


It is with that very same enthusiasm that we open up the book of Bereishit. We open up Bereishit this week and we learn from the very beginning as if we had never opened up the sefer before. Just this morning in shul, I watched with awe as a young boy very soon to be barmitzvah put on his tefillin for the first time. As he practiced he put them on again and again, he treated the tefillin as if they were priceless jewels. As I looked I learnt – we take so much care over our arba minim, because we only get to use them for seven days a year, yet every day (except Shabbat) we have the zechut to wear tefillin. We must aim to treat those holy tefillin every day as if it was the very first time that we were using them. It is true that Chagim are spiritually uplifting, but let us not forget that every six days we have Shabbat. Shabbat is holier than Yom Kippur itself; in the same way that we don’t waste a moment of Yom HaKippurim we should not waste a minute of Shabbat. Let us make sure this year that our Shabbat is truly used to serve its real purpose, spiritual rest and invigoration. We must now aim to take that enthusiasm, the spiritual climaxes of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot and place them into every day of the winter. We leave the Bet Mikdash with everything to look forward to, a new year, and a chance to improve, to refine, and to strive forward. It is obviously difficult, we found it extremely depressing pulling down our beautiful Sukkah, but this dampening of morale is temporary, now we move onwards and upwards. The rain will be held off for a few weeks to insure that we arrive home safely both physically and spiritually, but then we must settle down and get on with what we were created to do.


So once again I welcome our students, alumni and friends to the book of Bereishit, we begin our studies this year with a deeper look at Cain and Hevel:  


Cain and Hevel: Internal Battle, Eternal Victory


“And the man knew Chava his wife; and she conceived, and gave birth to Cain saying, ‘I have acquired a man child from the Lord.’ And she again gave birth, to his brother, Hevel. And Hevel became a shepherd and Cain worked the land. And in the fullness of time, Cain brought an offering to Hashem from the fruit of the ground. And Hevel also brought, from the firstborn of his flock and their [choicest] fat parts. And Hashem turned to Hevel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He did not turn. And Cain was very angry and dismayed. And Hashem said to Cain: ‘Why are you angry? Why are you so upset? If you do well, you will be accepted and if not, sin crouches at the door, and will desire you, yet you may rule over him.’ And Cain talked with Hevel his brother, and while they were in the field, Cain rose up against Hevel his brother and killed him.” (Bereishit 4: 1-8)


The Kli Yakar[1] suggests that Cain and Hevel were actually involved in a philosophical dispute about Man and his reason for being. Is this world an end in itself, or is there another, eternal world? Is this world only a means to reach the World to Come?


It would appear that the land-loving Cain was of the opinion that life in this world is the goal, and that there is no life after this world. On the other hand, Hevel believed that there is another world, in which a person can truly attain his essential reason for being. He therefore chose to be a shepherd, an occupation that involved isolation and quiet time for contemplation and meditation. Indeed, maybe this is the meaning of the midrash in Bereishit Rabbah (22:16,) that says that Cain was interested in real estate while Hevel preferred movable assets. Cain saw this world as the solid base of his existence, and Hevel saw his existence in this world as temporary and uncertain.


The Kli Yakar’s character analysis of the world’s first brothers leads us to an age-old discussion concerning the definition of the world. History’s first dispute is crucial to the meaning of our very lives.[2]


Perhaps we can assert that the ideologies of Cain and Hevel were defined by their names. ‘Cain’ alludes to possession; having given birth to the first naturally born child, Chava initially, yet understandably, reached the wrong conclusion: ‘Hashem created Man, and now I have created man!’[3]


Chava named her first son Cain, the root of the name being a derivative of ‘kinyan, a possession. In reaching the wrong conclusion, she passed on this philosophy to her firstborn. Inherent within Cain’s character was a subconscious understanding that he possessed the world; he was in control, and the land was his to use as he saw fit. The ramifications of such an outlook on life are disastrous, and can eventually lead man to the conclusion that he is God, with the power over Life and Death. It therefore comes as no surprise when Cain, overcome by disappointment, reverts to his natural role and promptly kills his brother.


“And the man knew Chava his wife; and she conceived, and gave birth to Cain saying, ‘I have acquired a man child from the Lord.’ And she again gave birth, to his brother, Hevel.”


By the time Hevel is born, it would appear that Chava has a very different approach to life. When describing the birth of Hevel, the Torah does not explain the name; Chava simply gives birth again. 


Chava seems to have matured in her world outlook; she is a little wiser to the realities of life. Chava now understands that Man may well be all-powerful, he may indeed have apparent control of this world, but he is ultimately finite, flesh and blood. Man is Hevel, which means emptiness. Her original possessive aspirations have now been replaced by a more realistic and truthful perspective of the Hevel-like nature of Man’s role in the world.


The world’s second son is therefore not interested in possession at all. He does not involve himself in tilling the land. Instead, Hevel chooses a top Jewish profession, the art of shepherding, pre-empting great leaders such as Moshe Rabbeinu and David HaMelech who also began their 'careers' tending their flocks.


With only four people living in the world at the time, it would be difficult to suggest that either brother chose his vocation simply in order to make a living. How much produce does one need to feed so few people? How many sheep does one need to feed and clothe a family? We must therefore assume that just as Cain, the possessor, chose farming as a reflection of his ideology, Hevel chose shepherding for its contemplative rewards. Cain firmly believed in this world and aimed to control it, while Hevel saw the futility of this world and wandered it in search of Truth.


The Kli Yakar continues to beautifully explain why the Torah records that Cain and Hevel offered their sacrifices to Hashem “in the fullness of time,” or literally “at the end of days.” It was only as Cain became older that he began to realize the futility of this world, and only then did he finally decide to ‘approach’ Hashem with a sacrifice. However, it would appear that his attempt at serving Hashem was rather half-hearted at best. We can see from Hashem’s reaction that his intentions were questionable:


“And Hashem said to Cain: ‘Why are you angry and crestfallen? If you do well, you will be accepted and if not, sin crouches at the door, and will desire you, yet you may rule over him.”


Hashem offers Cain some admonitory advice. Do you really think that you can become a servant of the King by simply performing a ritual? It is your actions and beliefs that determine whether your sacrifice will be accepted. If you rise to the challenge and change your approach to life then you will undoubtedly succeed. You must rid yourself of the possessive element within you; you must choose an alternative path to life, a path that will lead you to a true understanding of Man and his role in this world. However, if you choose to remain on the path you have followed so far, you have been warned: “sin crouches at the door.” The root of all sin is Man’s mistaken conclusion that he is the sole ruler of the Earth and everything it contains.


In his commentary on Bereishit 4: 3-6, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch  also points an accusing finger at Cain’s misdirected intentions:


“Two people can bring identical offerings, offer exactly the same prayers, and still present themselves to God in infinite dissimilarity. That is clear from the very first offering. It does not say: ‘Hashem turned to Hevel’s offering, and did not turn to Cain’s offering;’ instead the verse states: ‘He turned to Hevel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He did not turn’. The essential difference lay in the person giving the offering and not in the offering itself. Cain had the wrong attitude and therefore his offering was displeasing too.”


After Hashem’s rebuke, Cain is faced with the choice of dealing with the matter at hand – “it’s never too late,” or stubbornly continuing on the wrong path. However, he misses the chance, and makes the same mistake that so many of us repeat when faced with such awesome dilemmas.


As a child, I remember playing with my friends for hours in the playing fields near my house. As with every kid’s ball game, there comes a time where an argument breaks out between the players, and the owner of the ball is often in the wrong. He is then faced with the dilemma of admitting his guilt even though his team may well lose the game, or alternatively he can avoid the truth by changing the rules. I remember so many times when the ball owner set the other children an ultimatum: “Either I’m right or I’m going home and taking my ball with me!” Left with no choice, we begrudgingly retreated in order to carry on playing.


As we grow older, our human instincts do not change; we just become a little subtler in our approach. Cain has the choice of admitting that his chosen path is wrong; Man was not made to possess the land; Man is not God. The Almighty will only accept his offerings if he undergoes real change, if his intent is genuine. Cain however, cannot bring himself to this recognition. He sees another alternative. Instead of listening to Hashem’s clear explanation as to why his offering was rejected, Cain decides that the cause of his distress is nothing to do with him or with anything that he has done: the blame lays entirely with Hevel. Had Hevel not brought another sacrifice all would have been well.


When given the choice to accept his mistakes and do better next time, Cain chooses to avoid responsibility by simply changing the rules. If Hevel is no longer around, there will be no problem. Cain therefore reverts to his former role as possessor of the land and kills Hevel.


Only after the murder, when the Almighty appears to him again, Cain is now faced with the truth he can no longer deny. Attaining Hashem’s approval has absolutely nothing to do with anyone or anything else. The responsibility lies with him and his approach to life. Period.


Perhaps we can suggest that the story of Cain and Hevel is recorded in the Torah not only to illustrate the development of man in the context of the history of the world, but also in order to teach us something inherently true about ourselves.


Each of us has the choice of being Cain the Possessor, or Hevel the Truthseeker. Indeed, we often alternate between the two. There are times when we truly feel that we are on top of the world, and we unashamedly proclaim, “My strength and the power of my hand have created this wealth for me” (Devarim 8:17.) And there are times when we confront the truth of Hevel, when we realize our ultimate limitations, and we fully comprehend how little control we actually have over our lives.


The battle is a daily one; it engulfs every single decision we make. The battle between Cain and Hevel, between this world and the next, is a battle that we will fight for our entire lives. If the outcome is similar to that of the original dispute, then we will face the miserable fate of a Cain, a man ultimately unfulfilled; a man who put all his energies and strengths into matters of no consequence; a man who chose temporary pleasure over eternal aspirations.


The question I ask myself every time I study this parasha is: what are my priorities in life?


If we choose the Cain approach and make life in this world our priority, then we must know that the Cain within us will always kill the Hevel; business will have priority over Torah, and secular education will have priority over Jewish education. We may well bring sacrifices; we may go to shul, keep Shabbat, even attend weekly or daily shiurim, yet whenever these two worlds clash, Cain will triumph. When the shiur conflicts with a business meeting, when Ma’ariv coincides with the Super Bowl, when one’s needs and desires are restricted by the clear rulings of the Shulchan Aruch, then our internal Cain destroys our Hevel.


Hashem gives us clear advice in this week’s parasha: our future is in our hands. “If you do well;” if we work to change the nature of our being; if our internal Hevel can stand up and dominate our Cain; if we could only understand that this world is indeed essential, but only as a corridor, a passage to the World to Come, our lives can be transformed. We will wake up every morning and structure our day around prayer, study, and contemplation. Of course we have to work, but our approach to work will be different; our priorities and perspective on life will simply change.


This is the challenge Hashem has laid before us. The eternal battle of Cain and Hevel rages constantly inside us all. May it be Hashem’s will that we ‘rewrite’ the Biblical outcome so that the roles are reversed.


Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova

Rav Milston





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