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Parashat Beraishit: The First Penitent? by Yaakov Bieler

October 18, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

Penitence in the Tora’s first Parasha.

Emerging from the intense period of repentance and atonement that began with the month of Elul, we should be particularly sensitive to apparent acts of “Teshuva”, as well as their noticeable absence, in the Parashiot with which the Tora begins.[1] With respect to Parashat Beraishit, on the one hand, Adam, Chava and the Nachash (the primordial serpent) are never described as repentant for their defiance of HaShem’s Instructions concerning the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.[2] In contrast, Kayin, once confronted by God regarding the murder of his brother Kayin, does make a statement that at least some sources in the Oral Tradition as well as biblical commentators consider to constitute an act of contrition and confession.

Interpreting Kayin’s statement uncharitably.

Beraishit 4:9-16

Then HaShem said to Kayin: Where is Hevel your brother?

And he said: I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?

And He Said: What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood screams out to me from the earth!

And now you are cursed from the earth that opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

When you work the earth, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a wanderer on the earth.

(13) And Kayin said to HaShem: My sin is greater than can be borne.

(14) You have surely Banished me today from the face of the earth, and from before You I will hide myself, and I will be a wanderer on the earth and whomever finds me will kill me.

And HaShem Said to him: Therefore anyone who kills Kayin will be punished seven times over.

And HaShem Placed upon Kayin a sign, so that anyone who finds him would not kill him.

And Kayin went out from before HaShem, and he dwelled in the land of Nod, to the east of Eden.

If verse 13 would have been stated in isolation, rather than being immediately followed by verse 14, perhaps those who view Kayin’s comment regarding what he had done to his brother as arrogant,[3] self-serving and unrepentant,[4] would have been more sympathetic. Their negative evaluation of Kayin’s comment was probably based upon the question whether an individual who truly accepts the fact that he has sinned and must therefore be held responsible for his actions, debate with HaShem regarding where he would be able to live and the dangers that might subsequently befall him? According to those critical of Kayin, his preoccupation with what he was going to do in the future, rather than expressing a desire for forgiveness and atonement for his past actions, is the determining factor for how to understand the intent of Beraishit 4:13.

Being more sympathetic towards Kayin.

Yet other commentators look at the same two verses expressed by Kayin upon being confronted by God, and understand them in an entirely different light, seeing Kayin as the first paradigm of Teshuva in the Tora.

HaKetav VeHaKabbala on Beraishit 4:14

In my opinion, the verses’ intent is to reflect a complete confession whereby Kayin confessed with his full heart regarding the enormity of his sin, saying,

“My sin is very great, and I have transgressed exceedingly by spilling my brother’s blood, and it is too great to bear or to forgive. Justly and fairly You have Decreed upon me that I be exiled and be forced to wander in the earth. And the embarrassment of my disgusting actions will cover my face to be hidden from the Light of Your Face, and I cannot find the courage to plead on behalf of my life for forgiveness and atonement. And I declare the Righteousness of Your Judgment, and I accept with all my heart the decree to wander in the earth. And if only it should come to pass that my wanderings will eventually lead to my death, whereby someone will encounter me in the road and he will take my life, and my death will constitute a complete atonement for all of my evil to have extended my murderous hand against my brother.”

The word “Hein” connotes the justification of the words spoken by another, as is found in Rabbinic literature, e.g., “Someone says to another, ‘You have in your possession a ‘Mana’ (an object worth 100 Dinarim) that belongs to me’, and he responds, ‘Hein’ (Yes)”…

Therefore the meaning of (Beraishit 4:14) “’Hein’ You have Banished me”, is “Rightly and justly You have Banished me.”

And the meaning of “From before You I will hide myself” parallels the statement of Ezra the Scribe in his confession: (Ezra 9:6) “Oh my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to you my God, for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our guilt has mounted to the Heavens”…

Is death the ultimate atonement or does it stand in the way of engaging in repentance?

RaMBaN preceded R. Mecklenberg (the author of HaKetav VeHaKabbala), in attributing to Kayin an act of sincere contrition; however he understands Beraishit 4:14 not so much as exclusively a form of Tzidduk HaDin (acquiescing to and declaring as just a difficult Divine Decree) but rather as a plea to be allowed to continue the Teshuva process in the years to come by being granted continued life, even if it would be a life of wandering and homelessness.

RaMBaN on Beraishit 4:13

…He (Kayin) said, “It is true that my sin is too great to be forgiven, and You are Righteous, HaShem, and Your Judgments are fair, even though You have Punished me greatly and behold You have Banished me from the earth, because since I have to be a wanderer, and I will not be able to remain in a single place, I am banished from the earth, and there will be no place for my rest. (However, this also means that) from before You I will be hidden, because I will never be able to stand before You and pray or to offer before You a sacrifice or meal offering. (Yirmiyahu 31:19) ‘I am embarrassed and humiliated that I will have to bear the indignity of my youthful actions’, but what can I do, since anyone who will find me will kill me, and You in Your great Mercy did not condemn me to death (for my sin).”

The sense of this is that Kayin said before HaShem: Behold my sin is great, and You have Punished me exceedingly, but guard me that I should not be punished more than You have Decreed upon me for by being a fugitive and wanderer and unable to build myself a house and fences at any place, the beasts will kill me for Your “Shadow” (Divine Protection) has departed from me. Therefore Kayin confessed that man is impotent to save himself by his own strength, and can do so only by the Watchfulness of the Supreme One upon him.

Repentance will take place eventually, as a result of exile.[5]

A third point of view suggests that development and increased theological sophistication takes place in the relationship between God and Kayin subsequent to the murder of Hevel. Whereas the murderer may have started out defensive and even arrogant, he comes around as a result of his interaction with HaShem, which in turn leads him to a life of penance for what he had done.

Midrash Tanchuma, Beraishit Chapt. 9

Kayin said to Him: Sovereign of the Universe! I didn’t know. I have never seen anyone dead during my whole life. Did I know that if I would strike him with a stone that he would die?”

And He Responded to Him immediately: And now you are cursed from the earth that opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the earth, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a wanderer on the earth.

He said before Him: Sovereign of the Universe! Do you have spies that denounce people before You? My mother and father are elsewhere on the earth and they do not know that I killed him. And You are in Heaven, how do You Know?

He said to him: Fool! I Support the entire universe (i.e., I Know what is taking place everywhere)…

He said to Him: You Support the entire universe, and my sin You cannot support/forgive? My sin is too great to support/bear?

He Said to him: Since you have repented,[6] go and be exiled from this place, as it is said, “And Kayin went out from before HaShem, and he dwelled in the land of Nod, to the east of Eden.”

When he went out, wherever he would go, the earth shook beneath him, and the wild and domesticated animals would tremble and say, “What is this?” They said to one another, “This is the result of Kayin killing Hevel his brother. The Holy One Blessed Be He Decreed that he would be a wanderer in the earth. ” And they said, “Let’s go and consume him.” And they gathered together and came near him. At that moment, his eyes dripped tears and he said, (Tehillim 139:7-10) “Where shall I go from Your Spirit? Where shall I flee from Your Presence? If I ascend up to Heaven, You are there. If I make my bed in the Depths, behold You are there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Your Hand Lead me, and Your Right Hand shall Hold me.”

Imagining Kayin as not only turning his own life around, but exemplifying the power of repentance for another.

Taking the positive perspective even further, another Midrashic source not only maintains that Kayin truly repented, but also influenced his father, Adam, to follow suit with respect to the sin in the Garden of Eden:

Beraishit 22:13 on Beraishit 4:16

…R. Chama in the name of R. Chanina Bar Rav Yitzchak said: He (Kayin) went out happy…

Adam HaRishon met him and inquired: What occurred regarding your judgment?

He answered: I repented and I was forgiven.

Adam HaRishon began to slap his own face with his hands, and said: Such is the power of repentance?! And I didn’t know!

Immediately Adam HaRishon stood and said: (Tehillim 92:1-2) “A Poem for the Sabbath Day. (The Midrash associates the word “Shabbat” with “Teshuva”, sharing the letters “Shin” and “Veit”.) It is a good thing to give thanks (“LeHodot can be understood as not only “giving thanks” but also to connote “confessing”) to the Lord, and to sing praise to Your Name, O Most High. To relate Your steadfast Love in the morning, and Your Faithfulness every night.”

What to make of the range of views represented by these Rabbinic sources and commentaries?

So what was Kayin really thinking when he interacted with HaShem following his murdering his brother? Was he a monster and therefore should not be conceived as being able to rise above the heinous crime that he committed? Or does he learn from his mistakes and serves to inspire the rest of mankind—not only those who come after him, but even his parents!—to seek means of reconciliation with the Divine? According to the rule that one should strive to judge one’s fellow by extending to him/her the benefit of the doubt, should the approaches that view Kayin as taking responsibility for his actions and engaging in earnest repentance to be preferred over those points of view that consider him to continue to be evil until the end of his life?

What do you think?


[1] Other Biblical incidents in Sefer Beraishit which can be evaluated with regard to whether or not acts of repentance take place include: the generation of the Flood, Noach’s lying drunk and unclothed in his tent, the generation of the Dispersion, Avraham’s lying regarding his relationship to Sara, the behavior of the residents of Sodom, Lot’s liaisons with his daughters, Avraham and Sara’s banishment of Hagar and Yishmael with no food, Yitzchak’s lying regarding his relationship with Rivka, Yaakov’s forcing Eisav to sell his birthright under duress, Rivka and Yaakov’s deceit of Yitzchak, Lavan’s treatment of Yaakov, Yaakov’s treatment of Leah, Reuven’s actions following Rachel’s death, Yosef’s brothers selling him, Yosef’s concealment of his identity from his father and brothers, etc.

[2] The three sinners are Confronted by God and Given an opportunity to confess and atone beginning with Beraishit 3:9. However, aside from the Divine Consequences that result from their sin, described in 3:13-19, 23-24, Adam, Chava and the Nachash essentially remain silent and do nothing to indicate any regret for their past actions, except for Adam and Chava’s attempts at deflecting blame from themselves onto others in 3:12-13, an attitude that would appear to constitute just the opposite of Teshuva.

[3] Sanhedrin 101b

Three came with “Alila” (a circuitous plea): Kayin, Eisav and Menashe.

Kayin, for it is written, “Is my sin too great to be forgiven”? (Since there is no punctuation in the Tora, it is equally possible that Kayin’s statement was either declarative and contrite, or interrogative and therefore aggressive.) He pleaded thus before Him: Sovereign of the Universe! Is my sin greater than that of the 600,000 (a reference to the iniquities of the Jewish people while in the desert following the Exodus from Egypt) who are destined to sin before You, yet you will pardon them!”…

Beraishit Rabba 22:11 (RaShI on Beraishit 4:13)

The beings above and below You are Ready to Give support (“Naso” could connote forgiveness as well as bearing/holding up), but You cannot Support my sin?…

[4] Beraishit Rabba 22:13

“And Kayin went out from before HaShem”—From where did he go out?

R. Yudan in the name of R. Aybo: He slung his belongings over his shoulder and went out (giving the impression that he was assuming the life of a wanderer), like one who is Goneiv Da’at  (tricking) the Creator (because in reality he was going to defy the decree, an insight based upon Beraishit 4:16, where rather than wandering, the Tora states, “And he dwelled in the land of Nod, to the east of Eden”.

R. Berechya in the name of R. Elazar B’R. Shimon: As one who took large strides, and thereby assumed that he was tricking his Creator…

[5] Kayin’s experience, if in fact he was unaware of what would happen upon striking his brother as represented in the Midrash, presages the law of the inadvertent murderer who is exiled to a city of refuge for as long as the Kohen Gadol of the time is alive, with the exile hopefully catalyzing repentance and atonement.

[6] From the words attributed to Kayin at this point, it does not appear that he has repented, in contrast to what follows when Kayin is targeted by the animals, when his words demonstrate that he is truly contrite. It is reminiscent of the Tochecha in Parashat Ki Tavo:

Devarim 30:1-2

And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have Set before thee, and thou shalt bethink thyself among all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath Driven thee, and shalt return unto the LORD thy God, and hearken to His Voice according to all that I Command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul.

Since God Understands human nature and how a person will react to certain circumstances, in this case exile, perhaps it is as if Kayin has already repented, even though at the time of their interchange, he as yet not decided to do so.

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