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Jewish World Review
The World’s First Murder: A Closer Look at Cain and Abel The keys to the heavenly cookie jar
Rabbi David Fohrman
To sophisticated moderns, the Bible can sometimes seem like a collection of fairy tales. No longer.
Combining a careful reading of the text with ancient rabbinic analysis, the author takes us behind the scenes in Scripture, revealing a startling tapestry of meaning in stories that many have written-off as fiction.
As before, he has designed the series to be interactive. You are encouraged to pose questions and offer comments. Try to stump the rabbi he'll respond!
The eighth in a series
There is a great theological question that the story of Cain and Abel, the story of mankind's first offerings, raises. It is this: Does G-d really need these offerings, or any offerings for that matter? Is G-d some sort of cosmic carnivore, sated by the taste of meat rising from the altar? Is it conceivable that the Master of the Universe, the Creator of all Life, would need man's sacrifice of animal or plant life to keep Him happy? It seems an insult to our concept of the Creator to assume that this is so.
To some extent, we dealt with this question, at least implicitly, in the first two articles in this series. However, I'd like you to keep this question in the back of your mind, as we proceed to wrap up our look at the glassblower and his friend, Mr. Edison.
EDISON AND THE GLASSBLOWER REDUX
It's been almost a year since the incorporation of Fohrman and Edison Electric Works. Thomas and I are busy planning our gala, first anniversary party, to which virtually the whole town will be invited. It occurs to me that this would be a good time for me to give my partner, Thomas, a gift…
I suggested to you last week that the glassblower who assisted Edison in creating the light bulb has a fateful choice to make. Will he have the courage to see himself as he really is as the junior partner in the venture or will he invert that reality, fancying himself the primary innovator, with his friend, Thomas, a mere apprentice.
But it is not just a matter of how the glassblower will think about Edison. It is also a matter of how he will act towards him. For when Fohrman the Glassblower decides that he really should give a gift to his partner Thomas, what is he really thinking?
There are two possibilities.
WHEN PRUDENCE IS NOT A VIRTUE
One motivation the glassblower might have for his gift is pure gratitude.
If the glassblower is emotionally courageous, if he is able to come to grips with the reality of his relationship with Edison, he will be able to recognize the overwhelming debt he owes to his friend. And he will want to find a way to express that recognition to him:
Through Edison, I have had a hand in one of the greatest inventions of all time; I have risen beyond my wildest hopes to become a part of history. I am eternally grateful to Edison for allowing me to have a small part in all this. I owe the world to him. I have to find some way to express this to him…
But this is not the only motivation our glassblower might have.
What if it is simply too painful for him to recognize that he is but a junior partner in his life's dream? What if, instead of facing this truth head-on, our glassblower chooses to invert reality, and adopt the fantasy that he, not Edison, is the primary partner in the venture?
In such case, he may choose to think that he is not really indebted to Edison; he may choose to believe that, if anything, Edison is indebted to him.
This doesn't mean our friend the glassblower is going to nix the idea of giving Edison a gift. It just means that there's a different motive behind the gift. Indeed, whatever the glassblower tells himself, in the back of his mind, he knows that he needs Edison, and that he must at all costs preserve his relationship with him:
"You know, things certainly do seem pretty chummy between me and Thomas but you never can be too careful. What if some other glassblower tries to crash this party and weasel his way into Edison's confidence? I mean, I know Thomas would be a fool to drop me for someone else but Thomas has always been a bit naïve about the intricacies of glassblowing. It might just be prudent of me to buy him a little something in advance of that party...
This second kind of gift is very different than the first. It is not really about gratitude; it is about insurance. It is not so much an expression of personal feelings as it is a concession to business necessities. There are costs to doing business, and one of those costs is keeping the people that you need happy.
These differences in motivation begin in the mental realm, in the private realm of the giver's mind. But these differences don't stay private for long. They invariably express themselves in the nature of the gift one chooses to give.
A person expressing a profound sense of gratitude gives the best he can. A person buying an insurance policy is looking for a reasonable deal.
IF THE ALMIGHTY HAS NO NEEDS, HOW CAN I GIVE HIM ANYTHING?
Let's come back to the question we raised at the beginning of this article: Does G-d really need what we are trying to give Him? The answer, I think, is that an offering, in its genuine religious sense, is not an attempt to fulfill the "needs" of G-d. The Almighty doesn't have any needs that, indeed, is why they call Him "all-mighty". The false premise at the heart of the problem is the notion that I have to be fulfilling some need of yours if I am giving something to you. That's wrong. There are other reasons to give gifts. One of them is something we call "gratitude".
Gratitude has very little to do with a recipient's "needs". As such, it is not crucial that gifts of gratitude be expensive or overly abundant. But it is important that one gives his best. The gift might be as simple as a single rose picked from your garden; but it will be the best of those roses. Anything less than that fails to say what you want it to say.
A month or two ago, a student of mine called me to discuss a gift that the class was planning to give me. Usually, such end-of-year gifts are meant to be surprises, but this student broke the rules and figured that he, on behalf of the class, would just plain and simple ask me what I wanted. He made an interesting stipulation, though. My laptop had been stolen the week before and he remarked, "Frankly, we could just give you a gift certificate to Best Buy to help you buy another laptop but we know that you'll get that for yourself one way or the other. We want to give you something special. How about a gift certificate for a gourmet dinner, and tickets for you and your wife to attend this great new play that's coming to town?"
When a gift is meant to express gratitude, it's not really about fulfilling the needs of the recipient. The thing I needed most was a new laptop. But, unlucky for me, that was besides the point. The gift needed to be special, and a laptop was simply too pedestrian to qualify. Strangely, but perhaps appropriately, the "special-ness" of the gift at least in the mind of this student seemed to have an inverse relationship to how much I needed it. Instead, "only the finest" the gourmet meal and tickets to the play would do.
Expressions of gratitude such as these can help build relationships. Ironically, though, not all gifts are so constructive. When a gift masquerades as gratitude but is really a glorified insurance policy, it doesn't help our relationship with the recipient one little bit. And here, perhaps, lies the key to our story.
G-D AND THE HEAVENLY COOKIE JAR
Let's recall that Cain derives his name, Kayin, from his mother Eve's declaration of awe at his birth. And not coincidentally, Cain, through farming, actualizes his name. He, like his mother before him, devotes himself to the thrilling creation of new life seedlings in partnership with G-d. Yet Cain, in offering a gift to his Divine partner, chooses to give something that is merely average. Why would he do that?
Is Cain giving a free-flowing gift of unmitigated gratitude, or a calculated bargaining chip? Is it about "what can I give" or "how much can I afford?"
Remember: There was a potentially dark side to Eve's declaration. She was not just "creator" but "acquirer", and in her exalted partnership with G-d, it was not entirely clear who was the vehicle for whose creativity. Eve's challenge, perhaps, compounds itself when it comes to the next generation her son Cain. If Eve's challenge was to think with integrity, to maintain cognizance of her role as junior partner with the Divine, maybe her son's challenge was to act with integrity to relate to the Almighty from a position of gratitude, not bribery. And perhaps it was here that he failed.
If this was the root of Cain's failure, his behavior was certainly understandable - even logical. Bargaining chips are more "rational" than free-flowing gratitude. After all, G-d is very powerful. He holds the keys to the Great Heavenly Cookie Jar, and we all want what's in that jar. But if we are not careful, the need to get those things can loom larger and larger, until this need crowds everything else out.
Ultimately, when the gift you give is little more than a spiritual insurance policy to make sure you get what you want from G-d, you may, ironically, be creating distance with that gift, not closeness. The nature of this distance is something we have yet to fully explore. But for now, suffice it to say that when a recipient refuses such a gift, what he is really saying is try again; you're not in the insurance business. This isn't what our relationship is meant to be about...
We are now, perhaps, in a position to understand something we first saw weeks ago the mysterious links between our story and the Eden narrative. That, though, will have to wait at least one more week (maybe two).
I'll see you then.
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Rabbi David Fohrman teaches Biblical Themes at the Johns Hopkins University, and directs the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies. His intriguing talks on a wide array of Biblical themes are available on tape and CD at jewishexplorations.com
Thomas Edison and the glassblower
What kind of 'with'?
Living the dream of Eve
Blood on the ground
Echoes of Eden
The enigmatic genius of Cain
A Closer Look at Cain and Abel
Sure, the Bible is holy, but does it really mean anything?
© 2005, Rabbi David Fohrman