Bereishis is one of my favorite parshas in the Torah. I started learning Hebrew simply by reading the first chapters and comparing it to multiple translations. The nuances of the days of creation are so deep and profound, it’s a shame that Bereishis doesn’t get a whole week to read. Though creation and the Garden of Eden are the cream of the crop, I wanted to look at a moment in the infamous story of Cain and Abel.
In a nut shell, one day, brothers Cain and Abel bring sacrifices to God. While God is enthralled with Abel’s offering, to Cain’s God is rather lukewarm. Cain gets jealous and yada, yada, yada, we end up with the first murder in human history.
But it’s the moment after God’s reaction to Cain’s offering that I want to look at.
But to Cain and to his offering He did not turn, and it angered Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angered, and why has your countenance fallen? Is it not so that if you improve, you will be forgiven? If you do not improve, however, at the entrance, sin is lying, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it.” (Bereishis 4: 5-7)
When Is Good Enough, Good Enough?
Being a screenwriter, I am no stranger to rejection. After pouring your heart, soul, and life into a script only to have it torn apart, or worse, disregarded without comment, the process leaves its mark. Now if you look above, the first line says God turned away from, Cain and his offering. God didn’t just reject the sacrifice, God rejected Cain as a person. That is particularly devastating.
Whether it is dating, work, sports tryouts, or whatever, we’re often told our rejection isn’t personal. Sometimes they’re just being nice, “We had so many submissions this year and the quality was beyond what we’d ever… blah, blah, blah. Give us money next year.” And sometimes it’s really just luck of the draw. Is it Shawshank Redemption‘s fault it came out the same year as Forrest Gump?
However if God tells you that He’s rejecting you, it’s hard not to take that personally. But where the parsha tells us Abel brought the choicest of cattle, while Cain essentially brought the leftovers, we see Cain didn’t try his hardest. When you try your hardest and you don’t succeed, it sucks. But it’s when you realize deep down that you could have done more, that’s when the failure really stings. That’s what God’s rejection was about.
If At First You Don’t Succeed… Now What?
God goes to comfort Cain with the following, Is it not so that if you improve, you will be forgiven? It doesn’t take a Torah scholar to know that once you fail, you pick yourself up and try again. But there are a few nuances in the verse that add deeper insight.
According to the Baal Shem Tov, the Hebrew אִם־תֵּיטִיב֙ (if you do good), can also be understood as if you feel good about yourself, and שְׂאֵ֔ת (you will be forgiven) can also mean you’ll be able to carry. From this Rabbi Michael Twerski says that if you know you are intrinsically good, you’ll be able to carry your burdens and the burdens of others. And we see this. We all know someone who never lets anything get them down and are always positive. When you’re around them, they lift you up too! They are a beacon.
Personally those people annoy the hell out of me (I’m totally kidding.) But how do you manage to stay happy when you’ve just had your hopes dashed? The verse answers in a couple of ways. First off, the phrase in which God comforts Cain ( Is it not so that if you improve, you will be forgiven?) isn’t told to Cain as a new idea, it’s phrased as a rhetorical question. Why? Because deep down we all know whatever bad news we’ve received isn’t the end of the world. We just want to believe it is. Because then we get to give up. But if we acknowledge the truth, that means we have to try again.
The second clue is in the lines before it. ...it angered Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell. The verse says Cain was angered and he was frowning (or whatever countenance fell means). Why doesn’t the verse just say Cain was upset? Here the Torah is making a distinction between the inner feelings and the face we show the world. Everybody struggles (including that Positive Patty who I find so annoying). But some people make an effort to keep a pleasant demeanor. I’m not saying you should repress your negative feelings. But that doesn’t mean you should go around spreading your negativity. And both Torah literature and science confirms that if you make the efforts to have a positive physicality (smiling, standing up straight) your emotional state follows.
Setting The Tone
When God questions Cain as to why he is sad, the Sforno brings the insight, “Whenever a person comes to a difficult time, don’t focus on the past. Don’t focus on the downfalls of before, rather seek to rectify the future.” We’ve just started a new year. You’ve been through Yom Kippur, you’ve grown as a person, you have new insights, you’re not the same individual you were before. But despite all that, all too often we convince ourselves because our attempts didn’t work in the past, they won’t succeed in the future. And God is explicitly telling Cain that that couldn’t be further from the truth.
You don’t have to fall into the traps you think you’re doomed to repeat. Try harder, be positive, and be persistent. This is a new year.