Cain’s crime is understood well. It was a crime of passion, a crime driven by jealous rage. Abel had gotten the better of Cain. Abel had won the grace of G-d while Cain had failed. Abel had what Cain wanted. Numerous explanations are given for Cain’s motive. An economic motive, a religious motive, lust after a woman, all these are legitimate interpretations for the first murder committed on this earth, and each explanation bears a relevant message. Cain’s response to the consequences, however, is not as simple to understand.
G-d: “Cain, where is your brother?” Cain: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” G-d: “What have you done? The sound of your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the earth! And now, cursed are you from the earth which opened its mouth to take the blood of your brother from your hand. When you work the land, no longer will it yield its strength to you; you shall be unsettled and wandering upon the earth.” Cain: “Too great is my sin to bear. You have driven me today from the face of the earth – even from You I must hide – and as an unsettled nomad all who find me will kill me.” G-d: “Therefore, any who kills Cain shall be revenged sevenfold.”
Cain’s sin was too great to bear. That is what Cain claimed. Numerous commentaries explore this response and explain it differently. Rashi, for example, explains that Cain was asking a rhetorical question. ‘Is this sin too great for You to bear?’ Surely, said Cain, as the One who bears the burden of all of heaven and earth, You can bear my sin as well.
However, the simple reading of the phrase indicates that it was too great for Cain to bear. Other commentaries translate sin as punishment. The punishment is too great for Cain to bear. As Cain claims, his right to live had been removed altogether, although that was not the thrust of the punishment.
Rabbi S.R. Hirsch notes that if the translation were – too great is my punishment to bear, it would make perfect sense. Cain was sentenced to exile, denied the protection civilization provides, making him easy kill for any predator. G-d accepts Cain’s complaint and provides him with protection. The problem is, the word doesn’t mean punishment, it means sin! Instead, R’ Hirsch finds in this phrase a deep insight into the dark mind of a criminal. The gravity of his crime is not brought home to Cain by the hideous results. The sight of his brother’s corpse wallowing in blood does not disturb him. It is only when he is sentenced to live in circumstances which put his own life in peril that it dawns on him that he might have committed an unforgivable act. In other words, Cain remains the same person he was before he committed the crime. He remains egotistical. He thinks only of himself. This is who he is. His very name stems from the Hebrew word meaning jealous. Jealousy is a primary characteristic in Cain’s psychological makeup. In R’ Hirsch’s words he is stamped by this jealousy. He could live with the fact that he had murdered his brother, but he now realized that by murdering his brother he had effectively murdered himself! He had caused the forfeiture of settlement and protection for himself. There is no remorse of the crime, only remorse that the consequences are too harsh. Because of the consequence his sin has become too great to bear.
This passage in the Torah, including the narrative of the death of Abel and the subsequent reaction of Cain, sheds an insightful light into the workings of the human mind. The book of Genesis, more than any other section of the Torah, is about people. It is not about nations or even one nation. It is about individuals. It demonstrates how people act and how they react. It shows the qualities of man in action. It illustrates the weakness of humans as well their tremendous abilities of virtue.
If we chose to, we could view the story of Cain and Abel as a parable. Jealousy meets Nothingness (taking the literal meaning of their names). Jealousy perceives that the other has something that he doesn’t. He succeeds in taking away nothing from Nothingness and has nothing more than he started off with. Jealousy is disappointed, not that he committed a crime for nothing, but because he ends up with less than he started off with. Jealousy has no remorse for his actions, only sadness that he has lost something. Jealousy remains unrepentant, unchanged by the event.
Cain personifies this trait and is a caricature of the worst of jealousy. There are many stories in the book of Genesis with a similar theme but an entirely different ending. Adam, after eating the fruit that was forbidden to him, and initially deflecting the blame, embraces responsibility and finds new respect for Eve, whom he at first blamed. He subsequently named her Chava, the mother of all life.
Adam succeeded in rising above his mistake. He didn’t become merely a better Adam; he became a different Adam. This is the repentance that G-d seeks. He doesn’t want us to merely become better versions of ourselves; He wishes us to become different from the people we used to be. This, writes R’ Yitzchak Hutner, is the meaning of Teshuva. Repentance is not about becoming better, it is about becoming different. Cain did not change himself. He remained the same egotistical person, remorseful only for getting caught in his action.
After going through the High Holidays, standing through the Day of Judgment, praying through the Day of Atonement and rejoicing through the festival of Sukkot, we must be different people. We must not be the same people we were three weeks ago.