“וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃”
“Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!”
Names are important. Names are not given at random, especially in the Torah, where they are rich with meaning. For those who read the text in translation often the Midrash Shaem or etymological explanation of one’s name is lost. For instance, this week as we begin the next cycle of our Torah, as we start from the beginning once again, we learn of the first two humans. They’re given names: “Adam” and “Eve.” But, rather than understand these names as names like we might give to a person in modern times like “Charlie” or “Sally” we must look at them more like titles.
Adam or אדם meaning from the earth or אדמה, and Eve orחוה is the life-force and is called: “אֵ֥ם כָּל־חָֽי”
“The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.” (Gen. 3:20)
How might we understand the biblical text differently if instead of using their “names” Adam and Eve, we called them by their titles “Earth” and “Life”?
Would that alter our understanding of the text or of our role as human beings? To think that we as humans are all descendants of the union of “life-force” with “Earth” might change our mindset and think of the creation story and our profound responsibility or mission on earth.
And then what of their immediate progeny?
קין והבל are generally translated as Cain and Abel, but that really offers us very little by way of understanding who they are and what their titles might be. Kayin could have multiple meanings, and the basic reading in the text offers that this name is from the root of the word לקנות as he was “acquired” or “given” (4:1). However, biblical scholars explain that the word Kayin could come from the word Kaneh or shaft of a spear or staff connecting him with agriculture and his destiny to be the first farmer. Kayin was the symbol of working and settling the land. He was the farmer, the materialist the forbearing of permanent settlement on the earth.
His brother Hevel was the polar opposite. Hevel was the shepherd, the gentle soul whose offering was paid heed by God. Of course, Kayin’s frustration with what he perceived to be preferential treatment led to ride up and murder his brother Hevel. Yes, Cain killed Abel, but that’s missing the deeper meaning.
Hevel appears elsewhere in the Bible and coming off of the holiday of Sukkot we are of course familiar with the Hevel of Kohelet or Ecclesiastes.
Kohelet tells us that:
הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
“Utter futility!—said Koheleth— Utter futility! All is futile!” (Ecc. 1:2)
Reading it in context as Dr. Ethan Dor Shav points out
, “Kohelet’s famous opening line—“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”—would have been instantly recognizable as an allusion to another text in their unique intellectual heritage: the story of Cain and Abel from the book of Genesis. The most important clue to the mystery of Ecclesiastes, therefore, is found in the striking reference it makes to the Bible’s first book.
Abel is the first human being to die. Just two verses after humankind was denied the tree of eternal life, his story becomes the embodiment of human mortality. It is in this context that we may reread the verses of Ecclesiastes: “Man sets out for his eternal abode, with mourners all around in the street. . . . And the dust returns to the ground as it was, and the life breath returns to God who bestowed it. Havel havalim, says Kohelet. All is hevel.”
However, Abel’s representation of death is only one side of the story. He is also the first human being to offer a sacrifice that God accepts. A far cry from the guilt of Adam, Eve, and Cain, all of whom were rebuked by God, Abel was the first human whom God clearly likes. Before him, we did not even know it was possible. When we read that “the Lord heeded Hevel and his offering,” the verb “heeded,” vayisha, (4:4) carries a powerful overtone of deliverance as well as acceptance.
Furthermore, it appears that God is deliberately accepting, or as the Hebrew connotes, “delivering,” not only the offering, but Abel himself. Not until Abraham do we find such unqualified approval by God.
It is eerily coincidental that on this Shabbat when we begin reading our Torah anew, and read of the creation of the earth, the Garden of Eden with the “Tree of Life in the middle of the garden,” and painfully internalize the world’s first murder, we commemorate one year since the heinous massacre of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Like fleeting cherry blossoms, almost sacredly ephemeral, the transience of hevel inspires Kohelet’s existential transformation. Like the creation story and the Garden of Eden we also are awakened to the beauty of sunsets, autumn leaves, and fleeting light. For it is precisely the transience of these things that moves us. By understanding the fleeting nature of life as a whole, Kohelet is no longer paralyzed by the burden of death.
Proverbs teaches us that it is a Tree of Life to all who hold it strongly, and the creation of the world reminds us of our own mortality and of the fragility of life. As we finish our collective year of mourning (according to the Gregorian calendar) of those who were murdered during prayer, let us read Hevel not as futility or vanity, but as a way of understanding life’s transience as dynamically transformed into a powerful motivational force: an urgency to live, to experience joy, to take action, and above all, to hold fast to our Torah and live by its values.
Let us answer loudly that “We are, in fact, our brothers’ keepers!” That while we turn our Torah and turn it again to see all that is in it, we must first and foremost cry out against the murderous Cains in our midst. The fact that Jews today are not safe one year after the most horrific anti-Jewish attack in the United States and that we still see more and more threats to our physical safety ultimately causes us to divert our attention and our energy from the mission set forward in our creation story that we were put on this earth “לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ” – to work the land to be its steward.The blood of our brothers and sisters cries out to us from the Earth and from the Life-force, and may this year see an end to the actions of Cain, and for Abel to hold on to life’s fragility and make the most of it every day.