Stuart Fickler, Ph.D.

Chapter 9 – The Journey Begins


“Is it not so that if you improve, it will be forgiven you? If you do not improve, however, at the entrance, sin is lying, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it." (Genesis 4:7)


Adam and Eve (humanity) have left the pristine innocence of the Garden of Eden. By their own choosing, they must live in a world where they will confront good and evil every day of their lives. They and their descendants must learn to deal with good and evil so that they will acquire a heart of understanding and justly rule over God’s earthly domain.

This raises a question. When did good and evil come into existence?   Some have suggested that evil came into the world when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. However, Rav Ashi (Talmud, Shabbat 156a) tells us that good and evil came into being on the first day of Creation with light and darkness. Accordingly, good and evil existed in the world before Adam and Eve. By eating the fruit, Adam and Eve recognized the existence of good and evil. This view is supported by Maimonides: “… for what the man had seen previously and what he saw after this circumstance was precisely the same: there had been no blindness which was now removed, but he received a new faculty whereby he found things wrong which previously he had not regarded as wrong.” (Guide, Part I, Chapter II).

The first post-Eden learning experience is now about to take place. The time had come for Cain, the farmer, and Abel, the shepherd, to bring offerings to God. Abel brought the best of his flock, and Cain brought inferior crops (see Genesis Rabbah 22:5). As a result, God was pleased with Abel’s offering, but was not pleased with Cain’s. Cain was jealous and very angry with Abel. He blames Abel for God’s displeasure. It is at this point that God warns Cain: Is it not so that if you improve, it will be forgiven you? If you do not improve, however, at the entrance, sin is lying, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it.” Nonetheless, Cain’s rage drives him to kill Abel. Again we have a case where someone blames another person for his shortcomings, but this time it leads to murder.

Maimonides, quoting the Talmud, said that he learned much from his teachers, more from his colleagues, and most from his students. I have been blessed with some wondrous students. I lead a havurah where we start each session with a brief shiur. On one occasion, I asked the members of the group how they would define evil. One of them answered that she would define evil as “absolute narcissism”. That was a “eureka moment” for me. In just two words she had gotten to the very core of evil. Absolute, or extreme, narcissism is what the Rabbis call the evil inclination.

The usual behavior of a narcissist is that they see themselves as perfect, and entitled to whatever they want. They blame others for their shortcomings. They absolutely refuse to accept responsibility for their faults. They use other people as mere pawns to sustain their distorted self-image. They are insensitive to the needs of others, and don’t realized that harming an innocent person is a sin.  It’s not difficult to see how this can lead to murder, theft and the myriad other sins that beset humankind.

Clearly Cain is in this category. He refused to recognize that he chose to make an inferior offering. Then he blamed Abel when God did not find his offering acceptable. God tried to teach him that he had the power to control sin – to govern himself. Cain rejected the warning and, in his uncontrolled rage, murdered his brother. How can someone who cannot exercise self-governance be expected to justly govern God’s earthly domain?

The story of Cain and Abel is a paradigm for all human relationships. How we relate to ourselves determines how we relate to others. We are all vulnerable to lesser forms of narcissism. In fact, psychologists tell us that narcissism is a normal stage in infantile development. However, in order to mature to a responsible adult, we must outgrow it. We all retain, at least, a residue of narcissism that we must control. Was there a time that you blamed someone for something that you knew, deep in your heart, was your mistake?

Now we come to the next question. Why didn’t God punish Cain with immediate death? In Genesis Rabbah (22:12), we are told that Rabbi Nehemiah said: “Cain's judgment shall not be as the judgment of other murderers. Cain slew, but had none from whom to learn [the enormity of his crime], but henceforth, All who slay shall be slain.” Again we see that God’s punishment is measure for measure. Cain is made God’s messenger to humanity. He goes into the world bearing a mark declaring him guilty of an abomination, and that henceforth, all who slay shall be slain.

Finally, this story raises a challenging “kabbalistic” issue.  In Chapter 6, we found that, by eating the fruit, human beings were transformed into observers. They acquired the ability to separate themselves from their environment. This capability is essential for just governance, science, and literature. It is the driver for the advance of civilization. However, it is also at the root of narcissism, the ability of humans to disconnect themselves from other humans.  We are lead to the paradox that good and evil came from the same source. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, responded to this paradox, by saying: “By eating from the Tree, man gained intimate knowledge (daat) of evil, ... From that point on the two realms were confused, there being no evil without good and no good without evil. The task of man became the "work of refinement" (avodat habirurim)--to distinguish and separate good from evil and evil from good.” Consider this as we continue our journey.

With God’s help, to be continued. Next time: “The Last Boat to Ararat

Emet v’chaim.