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Talking the Talk

Written by Rabbi Andrew Savage

This week we read about the argument between Kain (Cain) and Hevel (Abel) which results in the first murder in history when Kain kills Hevel. The narrative which describes the cause of their argument raises some fundamental questions, and offers us an invaluable insight into the correct understanding of our relationship to Mitzvot generally. The Torah explains (chapter 4, verses 3 – 5) that both Kain and Hevel brought offerings, or gifts, to G-d. Kain, a farmer, brought an offering from his fruits. Hevel, a shepherd, gave from his sheep. Ostensibly then, both did an almost identical thing – they offered some of their produce, be it fruit or sheep, to G-d as a gift….

Yet for some reason G-d accepted Hevel’s offering and rejected that of Kain. It was the despair, anger and jealousy that Kain felt as a result of this rejection that led him to murder his brother, Hevel. Two fundamental questions emerge from this short yet action-packed narrative: Why did G-d only accept the offering of Hevel and not Kain? There does not seem to be any difference between their respective offerings? More fundamentally, what was the point of the offering in the first place? What does G-d do with fruit and sheep (the offerings made) anyway? Let’s deal with the second question first.

It is a philosophical necessity that G-d, as an Infinite Being, lacks nothing. He wants nothing since He lacks nothing to want. Neither fruit or sheep are of any intrinsic benefit to an Infinite Creator. He doesn’t get hungry or need to feel valued or loved. To want or need food or recognition would entail a deficiency or lacking and therefore render G-d finite which He is not. In other words the offerings don’t do G-d any ‘favours.’

So what is the point of them? An offering, or gift, is an expression of a relationship. The act of giving expresses and nurtures the relationship between giver and recipient. The gift itself is of no intrinsic significance. It is the relationship which it both expresses and nurtures which is. Imagine the example of two recently engaged couples both of whom are in the expensive business of buying engagement rings. One husband-to-be spends weeks designing the perfect ring for his fiancé – carefully considering the shape of the diamond, its sparkle, the best way to have it set on the ring in order to bring out its true shine and beauty. The other, too busy to spend any time getting caught up with such trivialities, simply gives his (soon to be ex) fiance a signed cheque and tells her to go find a ring she likes. In both cases the engagement ring will truly express the nature of the relationship – in one case an intensely intimate and personal loving relationship, and in the other an impersonal and severely lacking one.

It is clear from a closer reading of the Torah narrative, and the explanation provided by the key commentaries, that Hevel expanded great effort to give of the best of his flock, whilst Kain presented the cheapest poorest produce. Whilst Hevel sought to prepare the most suitable offering he could, Kain just grabbed the first thing he could find. The difference between them is not the value of their gifts, but the inner attitudes they reveal Hevel understood what it meant to ‘give’ something to G-d. He understood that this act was not some ceremonial feeding of the gods, but rather an intensely personal expression of a real relationship between him and his Creator. He correctly viewed this act as an opportunity to develop a deeper and more meaningful connection between him and G-d. Conversely, Kain seemingly thought that this ritual was just one of those things that had to be done to keep G-d happy. He therefore made no effort to invest the act with true meaning and significance as, for him, that didn’t matter. The Torah, through the story of Kain and Hevel, is communicating to us very clearly how we are supposed to relate to Mitzvot, the framework within which G-d has told us live an optimal existence. G-d doesn’t need our empty actions. An action is a shell. They are the necessary means through which we can, and should, get the most out of our interaction with ourselves, the world around us, and G-d.

An empty action is just that …. Empty. An action done by rote, like Kain’s ‘gift’, doesn’t do G-d any favours. For a Mitzvah to a be a truly significant Mitzvah as oppose to an act which may look Jewish but is essentially devoid of content, requires a great deal of work and personal input. Through this it will come to express and enhance a true relationship in the way in which it is supposed to.

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