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The Story of Kayin and Hevel

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




Summarized by Betzalel Posy


The story of Kayin and Hevel is quite mysterious. First, Kayin's sin seems to derive from his desire to enter into a relationship with God. Second, we are left in the dark as to the contents of his conversation with Hevel that led to the latter's murder. These questions and the strange nature of his punishment have led many to view him as a tragic hero.

On a simple level, it seems that Kayin's sin stems from his inability to balance appropriately the two primary aspects of Jewish observance: the interpersonal commandments and the spiritual relationship between Hashem and the individual. Such a lack of balance can lead to a complete divorce of the two sides. The gemara (Yoma 22-23) describes how the Kohanim would fight over the privilege to clean the mizbe'ach each morning. According to the mishna, the competition was so bitter that, in the rush to reach the mizbe'ach first, Kohanim would trip each other. The gemara cites an even more extreme story, where one Kohen kills another. In reality, there cannot be any distinction at all between these two aspects of Judaism; without either, a person's spiritual position is fundamentally deficient.

However, it is possible to understand Kayin's sin as not only a lack of perspective regarding the importance of bein adam le-chaveiro (interpersonal conduct), but as a fundamental flaw within his bein adam la-Makom (service of God) itself.

The midrash cites two versions of the conversation between Kayin and Hevel prior to the murder. In the first, the two brothers agree to split the world, one taking all the metaltelim (portable objects), and the other taking all the karka (land). One points out that the other is wearing his clothes, and the other points out that his brother is standing on his ground. Over this argument, Kayin kills his brother. According to this interpretation, their argument is economic and social in nature, having little to do with God. It is easily understandable, given world history, that such conflicts lead to violence.

However, the midrash offers another account of the conversation. According to this version, Kayin and Hevel split the world evenly and logically; they were able to cooperate on economic and social issues. However, their dispute arose over the question of whose portion should contain the Beit Ha-mikdash (Temple). Obviously, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with such a desire. Quite the contrary, it is commendable that someone should want to have more opportunity for expression of spiritual longing and connection to God. Similarly, Kayin's original desire that God accept his sacrifice is legitimate. Do we not pray three times a day for God's acceptance?

But where Kayin failed was in his motivation. Kayin did not want God's acceptance for its own sake, nor did he desire the Beit Ha-mikdash for spiritual gratification. The same actions which can demonstrate one's desire for a connection to God can also result from an egocentric approach applied to the religious realm. Such actions are flawed at their core, and lead to a rejection of true morality and spirituality that can culminate even in murder.

In our own service of God, we should be very, very careful of this fine line. While Chazal do say that "Kin'at sofrim tarbeh chokhma" ("The zealousness [or jealousy] of scribes increases wisdom"), we should also remember that when handled inappropriately, it is also "marbeh kin'a" (it increases jealousy). Only by being exceedingly vigilant in this area can we be assured that our worship will be accepted, and that we can build our personal mikdash "al taharat ha-kodesh," in holy purity.

(Originally delivered at Seuda Shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Bereishit 5757.)



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