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The Legacy of Cain

The Legacy of Cain

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And G-d said to Cain: ...When you till the earth, no longer will it yield its strength to you; a wanderer and a vagabond you shall be in the land.

Genesis 4:12

And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to Enoch. [Cain] was then building a city, and he called the city after the name of his son, Enoch.

Ibid., 4:17

The Torah names three of Adam's children: Cain, Abel, and Seth. Two--Cain and Seth--survived to marry and establish progeny. Generations later, Noah, a descendant of Seth, married Naamah, a great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Cain. Noah and Naamah, and their three children and daughters-in-law, were the family chosen by G-d to survive the Flood and regenerate the human race. So Cain and Seth are the respective maternal and paternal grandfathers of every human being alive today.

Quite a mixed legacy, one might say. Cain, banished to a life of wandering and homelessness for his murder of Abel, is the essence of volatility and rootlessness. As for Seth, the Torah tells us virtually nothing about his life and person, but his very name connotes stability and constructiveness: Seth, say our sages, was so named because upon him the world was founded (seth is Hebrew for "to set" or "to establish"). After the killing of Abel and the banishment of Cain, human civilization finally found a stable peg in Seth.

Cain the disrupter of life, Seth the patriarch. Cain the nomad, Seth the settler. Indeed, these two modes of being converge in every man. At the heart of the human psyche is the yen for stability, the gravitation to roots, civilization and productive life. Yet no less entrenched in our souls is the quest for transcendence, the drive to escape the strictures of ordered life to soar, unencumbered by function or identity, in unbounded flights of spirit.

Historically, the world undergoes phases of Cainian volatility before settling down to ordered productivity. Thus we have ten generations of violent, explosive life before the Flood, to be replaced by the stable order of the post-Flood world. On a more general level, the first twenty-five centuries of human history, which the Talmud describes as a time when the world trembled, bereft of foundation and focus, subsided upon the divine revelation at Mount Sinai, when G-d communicated His blueprint for creation and empowered man to harness the diverse forces in His world to harmonious ends. On a personal level, the stability and productivity of our adult years are preceded by the quests and agitations of youth.

The Three Pillars

But Cain and Seth are more than two stages in historical and personal development. They also represent two approaches to everything we do, two strains in every human endeavor and experience.

Let us consider the three activities that our sages call the three pillars of life: Torah study, prayer, and the observance of mitzvot. In each, there is the constructive Sethian approach and the escapist Cainian way.

Torah is our guide to life (the very word torah means instruction). So to study Torah is to learn how to live, to master the code that facilitates the optimal development of our inner potentials and the world's resources. Torah study, then, is a most Sethian endeavor. But there is also another mode of Torah study: learning for the sake of learning, for the sole aim of acquiring the wisdom of Torah and cleaving to its divine conceiver. Thus the Torah scholar explores the rationale behind rejected minority opinions with the same fervor as he examines the final ruling, and painstakingly analyzes hypothetical laws which will never occasion to be implemented in actuality. Indeed, the highest level of Torah study is Torah for its own sake, without regard to its pragmatic applications. This is Torah as Grandfather Cain would study it: as a freeing of the mind from the narrow confines of concrete reality.

Prayer also includes these two contrasting aims. On the one hand, the essence of prayer is that man ask G-d for his daily needs. The solemn amidah prayer, which is the climax of every prayer service, is basically a list of requests to the Almighty: requests for wisdom, health, sustenance, atonement and redemption. This is prayer as the procurement of the ingredients of life. But there is also another dimension to prayer: prayer as the endeavor to transcend the mundanities of physical life. Prayer as the soul's striving to escape the trappings of material identity and commune with her supernal source.

The same duality is implicit in the mitzvot, the divine commandments. On the one hand, the Midrash states that G-d commanded the mitzvot in order to refine His creatures--to cultivate the good in our character and weed out the bad, to civilize society and sanctify life. Indeed, our sages describe the purpose of creation as G-d's desire that man, through his observance of the mitzvot, should make for G-d a dwelling place in the physical world--i.e., cultivate the world's potential for goodness and perfection, developing it into an environment that is hospitable to the divine immanence.

On the other hand, the mitzvah is also described as a pure expression of divine will, transcending all rationale, motive and utility. We do a mitzvah because G-d commanded it, not for its impact--pragmatic or spiritual--on our lives. In this sense, the mitzvah is the ultimate act of transcendence: man rises above his wants and desires, above all material and social considerations, above his very conception of self, to subjugate his ego to the divine will.

Torah study, prayer and mitzvot embrace the totality of life: the mind's quest for truth, the heart's quest for connection and relationship, and the quest for realization through deed. And the motor of life is driven by the polar impetuses for transcendence and immanence, involvement and withdrawal, being and dissolution--the dual imprint of Cain and Seth in our spiritual genes.

The Two Enochs

Interestingly, Cain and Seth each had a descendant named Enoch. More interesting is the fact that each Enoch stands for the very opposite of what his ancestor represents.

What do we know of Enoch, the son of Cain? Only what he meant to his father. To cite Genesis 4:17: "And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to Enoch. [Cain] was then building a city, and he called the city after the name of his son, Enoch."

Cain fathering a child? Cain building a city? In this one verse, we meet a Cain engaged in most un-Cainlike activity, creating a life and a settlement--both named Enoch.

Seth's great-great-great-grandson Enoch strikes a similar contrast to his ancestor. This Enoch had a short life--a mere 365 years, compared with the 900-year life spans of his contemporaries. As the Torah tells it, Enoch walked with G-d; then he was no longer, for G-d had taken him. Our sages explain: Enoch had secluded himself from his wicked generation, disdaining all involvement with the outside world. Still, being the only righteous man in his generation meant that he was in perpetual danger of being corrupted. It is for this reason that G-d took him before his time, lest he, too, fall to iniquity. This Enoch is everything that Seth is not: escape from materiality, escape from society, and, finally, flight from life itself.

What does this tell us about the Cain and Seth within us? That these are not to be two segments of a bifurcated self, each with its distinct areas and moments of life. Rather, the Cain in us is to be tempered with the constructiveness that his Enoch represents, while our stable Seth is to be charged with the transcendent energy that his Enoch embodies.

Enoch (Chanoch in the Hebrew, which means education or training) is thus the mitigating element in both our dissolution-tending and being-tending selves. It is the element in the transcendental study of Torah that emphasizes that Torah is also a goal-oriented program for life; that even as it is studied for the sole purpose of abnegating the self and cleaving to G-d, it must never be studied as divine theory, but as G-d's instructions on how life is to be lived. Indeed, without such grounding and focus, the Cainian Torah scholar would not achieve true transcendence: to truly escape his own ego and connect with G-d, he must study G-d's Torah on G-d's terms--and it is G-d who structured His Torah so that its bottom line is the instruction of earthly life. Were the Cainian scholar to ignore this aspect of Torah out of a personal preference for its transcendent essence, he would be indulging his ego with his Torah study, rather than superseding it. So the Enoch element in transcendent Torah-study is not merely a curbing influence to temper its extremes, but also an indispensable component of its transcendent aim.

In the pragmatic study of Torah, Seth's Enoch represents the emphasis that while Torah is a guide to life, it is also infinitely greater than life, its rationality and practicality but an extraneous capsule for its supra-rational essence. Indeed, the Sethian Torah scholar would be incapable of mastering the pragmatic element of Torah without this transcendental component: one cannot render rulings in Torah law (halachah) unless one is proficient in all areas of Torah, including its most theoretical and mystical aspects. Furthermore, because Torah is the essentially supra-rational wisdom of G-d, human intellect alone is not sufficient a tool to fathom it: ultimately, Torah understanding is a gift from G-d, granted to those who dedicate themselves to know His truth and serve His will. So unless one has wholly subjugated his ego to the divine will, he cannot be sure that his halachic conclusions indeed reflect G-d's program for life on earth rather than his own reasoning and prejudices. Again, the contrasting element (the Enoch) is not merely to provide a qualifying balance to the Sethian mode of Torah study, but is integral to its very stability and constructiveness.

The same is true of the other two pillars of life: prayer and mitzvot. The most transcendent flights of Cainian prayer must be with a mind to return to earth: simply escaping one's material identity will not bring one any closer to G-d if the divine will is that man should serve Him as a physical being with a physical life. In the words of our sages, "While praying, one should set his eyes downward and his heart upward"--even as the heart soars in the ecstasy of prayer, it must be with the intention to apply the experience to earthly life. On the other hand, when a Jew requests his needs from G-d (the Sethian aspect of prayer), he must be ever conscious of the ultimate purpose for which he desires health and wealth--to be able to serve His Creator. Thus, the very act of procuring the resources of material life is permeated with the objective to rise above it: physical existence is not an end in itself, but a means to a transcendent goal. In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, "The materiality of a Jew is also spiritual."

Regarding the mitzvot, the Cainian endeavor to cleave to G-d through the fulfillment of His will can be achieved only through the physical acts and objects, and the discipline, order and attention to detail, that the mitzvot require. If a single drop of ink is missing from one letter in one's tefillin; if one's lulav falls one millimeter short of its halachically-ordained length; if the Shema is recited a single second after its halachically-ordained time--no mitzvah has been performed, and no transcendence has been achieved. On the other hand, the development of the physical reality--the Sethian objective of the mitzvot--can be optimally achieved only by one who is forever seeking to escape it. One who is comfortable with his corporeal self--one to whom the material reality seems fine the way it is--will never truly improve it; to effect truly constructive change in the world, one must rise above it, recognize its deficiencies, and be driven to improve them.

So the escapist nomad and the realist developer in us are integrally intertwined: no Cain is truly Cain without his Sethian Enoch, and no Seth is completely Seth without his Cainian Enoch. Every quest for truth must transcend the preconceptions of convention and ego, but must also test its viability through application to concrete reality. Every effort to sustain life must be permeated with a sense of meaning and purpose that transcends mere existence, but the highest spiritual goal must enlist the materials of earthly life as the implements of its realization. Every deed must be driven by a transcendent vision, but must also follow an ordered, pragmatic course if its endeavor is to succeed and its impact is to endure.

Vacillating Words

Indeed, this integration of transcendence and immanence is woven into the very fabric of our existence. For the divine act of creation is a synthesis of these contrasting tendencies, each equally crucial to the nature of reality as we know it.

The cardinal law of existence is that "there is none else beside Him" (Deuteronomy 4:35)--that G-d is the ultimate and exclusive reality. Every existence--indeed, the very concept of existence--is but an expression of His all-inclusive being. And yet, we not only sense that we exist, but also perceive ourselves as self-contained, independent entities. In order for this sense of self to be possible, the divine act of creation must effect an illusion of distance between the created and their Creator. This is the deeper significance of the Torah's description of creation as divine speech (G-d said, "Let there be light," and there was light; G-d said, "Let the earth sprout forth vegetation," "Let the waters spawn living creatures," "Let there be luminaries in the heavens," and trees, fish and stars came into being). Speech is a communication to someone or something outside of the speaker; in creating the universe, G-d contrived an audience--a reality that is, at least in its own perception, distinct from Himself--to which to speak a world.

At the same time, nothing can exist independently of Him. This, too, is implicit in the metaphor of speech: as spoken words are utterly dependent upon the continued involvement of their speaker to create them (the moment we stop speaking our words dissipate to nothingness), so, too, is the world utterly dependent on G-d's continued involvement to grant it being and life. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes in his Tanya, "these words and letters [of the divine utterances of creation] stand firmly forever within [every creature] and are forever clothed within [them] to give them life and existence... For if these letters were to depart even for an instant, G-d forbid, and return to their source, all... would revert to naught and absolute nothingness, and it would be as if they had never existed at all..." So the world is bound in a self-abnegating relationship with G-d, as mere words being generated by His speech of creation.

Thus, the divine energy flowing from Creator to creation is forever vacillating between the tendency to supply us with selfhood and apartness of being, and the tendency to overwhelm us with the identity-obliterating omnipresence of its source. This translates into the to-and-fro movement that pervades the created reality: the pulse of time, the throb of life, and the perpetual agitation from transcendence to immanence and back again in the human soul.

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe

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Discussion (3)
October 11, 2012
As a religion teacher for six year old children trying to teach the creation story right now is fun but daunting. The Rebbe gives such profound wisdom that a part of me wonders how or if I should integrate it into the concrete story the children will hear. Yet in today's world with so many people thinking that the Bible stories are actual real people etc. I feel somewhat compelled to allude to meaning behind the story to my students. Somehow I will think of a way to bring the abstract moral into a context of six year old world of reality.
catherine
October 17, 2009
legacy of cain
I am going to need to reread this several times over just to catch the geology the two Seths.. let alone begin to internalise all that is written here.
Anonymous
Bkk , Thailand
jewishthailand.com
October 14, 2006
thanks
you helped me with some of my research, i must have looked past the fact that cains great great great grand daughter married noah
mitch
newriver, az
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