What began as a good-will gesture turned terribly sour. Worse, it spurred the first murder in history. It could have been avoided if only…
The Torah tells us of Cain’s innovation. He had all the fruit of the world before him and decided to offer his thanks to the Creator, albeit from his cheapest produce — flax. Cain’s brother Hevel (Abel) imitated his brother, by offering a sacrifice, too, but he did it in much grander form. He offered the finest, fattest of his herd. Hevel’s offer was accepted and Cain’s was not. And Cain was reasonably upset.
Hashem appears to Cain and asks him, “Why is your face downtrodden and why are you upset?” Hashem then explains that the choice of good and bad is up to every individual, and that person can make good for himself or find himself on the threshold of sin. Simple as all that. (Genesis 4:6-7)
Many commentaries are bothered by what seems to be another in a litany of questions that G-d knows the answers to. Obviously, Cain was upset for the apparent rejection of his offering. Why does Hashem seem to rub it in?
The story is told of a construction worker who opened his lunch pail, unwrapped his sandwich and made a sour face. “Peanut Butter!” he would mutter, “I hate peanut butter!” This went on for about two weeks: every day he would take out his sandwich and with the same intensity mutter under his breath. “I hate peanut butter sandwiches!”
Finally, one of his co-workers got sick and tired of his constant complaining.
“Listen here,” said the man. “If you hate peanut butter that much why don’t you just tell your wife not to make you any more peanut butter sandwiches? It’s as simple as that.”
The hapless worker sighed. “It’s not that simple. You see, my wife does not pack the sandwiches for me. I make them myself.”
When Hashem asks Cain, “why are you dejected?” it is not a question directed only at Cain. Hashem knew what caused the dejection. He was not waiting to hear a review of the events that transpired. Instead Hashem was asking a question for the ages. He asked a question to all of us who experience the ramifications of our own moral misdoing. Hashem asked a haunting question to all whose own hands bring about their own misfortunes.
Then they mutter and mope as if the world has caused their misfortunes. “Why are you upset, towards whom are you upset?” asks G-d.
“Is it not the case that if you would better yourself you could withstand the moral failings and their ramifications? Is it not true that if we don’t act properly, eventually, we will be thrust at the door of sin?”
Success and failure of all things spiritual is dependent on our own efforts and actions. Of course Hashem knew what prompted Cain’s dejection. But there was no reason for Cain to be upset. There was no one but himself at whom to be upset. All Cain had to do was correct his misdoing. Dejection does not accomplish that. Correction does.
A person in this world has the ability to teach and inspire both himself as well as others. He can spread the faith that he holds dear. But his action can also spread more than faith. A person is the master of his own moral fate as well. And that type of fate, like a peanut butter sandwich, he can spread as well! Good Shabbos!
Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Associate Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.