V’ot Hab’rachah – Deuteronomy 33:1 to 34:12

Translation of Portion Title “V’zot Hab’rachah” – “And this is the blessing”

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The first killing occurs in B’reishit when Cain kills his brother. Why? and who is responsible? These are questions that arise in Torah’s first portion. Here are some possible answers.

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Actually, this is not this week’s portion. This Saturday’s portion is B’reishit. But on Wednesday, Simhat Torah, we will read from both this parsha – the end of Torah – and B’reishit – the start of Torah. And after studying a full cycle of Torah, it wouldn’t be right to just skip the ending.

The bulk of the parsha is written in the style of a poem or biblical “song.” It delivers the blessings or prophecies that Moses gives each of the tribes before he dies. The parsha closes with the death of Moses. “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom the Eternal singled out – face to face.” (Deut. 34:5-10)

Moses taught that we should learn and follow the words of God. What better way to this end than to read and study Torah. But before we begin again … we recite: CHAZAK, CHAZAK, VINETCHZAK. From strength to strength, we strengthen each other. (and isn’t that what Torah study is all about.)

B’reishit – 1:1 to 6:8

Translation of Portion Title “B’reishit” – “In the beginning” or “When Creation began”

Back to the very beginning… “When God was about to create heaven and earth, the earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness. Then God’s spirit glided over the face of the waters, and God said, ‘Let there be light.’” (Gen. 1:1-3)

After reading the entire cycle many times, I can say that the earth became formed. The darkness that covered the earth was replaced with the rhythm of day and night…. But, there is no doubt that the “chaos” continues all the way to the last week’s portion.

B’reishit is well known to all…. The two creation stories … Adam and Eve in the Garden … Their expulsion from Eden after eating from the tree of knowledge…. Cain and Abel…. And lastly, the generations to Noah.

It’s way to much to cover here, so this week, departing from what I have discussed in past years, I am focusing on the killing of Abel by Cain and how it relates to … and what it tells us about the rest of the Torah.

After the expulsion from the Garden, Eve had two sons. Cain was born first… Abel, born second. We are told very little about them and nothing about their growing-up years.

We do know that Cain became a farmer and Abel, a shepherd. Both decided to give an offering to God. Cain offered some of his harvest. Abel’s offering was from the “choice lambs of his flock.” The Eternal approved of Abel’s offering… but did not approve of Cain and his offering. No reason for approval or disapproval is given in the text. But commentators generally agree that because Abel chose from the best of his flock, God approved.

Cain became angered at this decision and when they went into the field together, Cain killed his brother Abel. “Then (in a famous passage) the Eternal One said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ And he replied ‘How should I know, am I my brothers keeper.’ And [God] said, ‘What have you done? Your brother’s blood is shrieking to Me from the ground. Now you are cursed by this very soil, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hands. When you till the soil, no longer shall it give you its yield. You shall become a rootless wanderer on earth.” (Gen. 4:9-12)

This passage foretells many other events in Torah. First, we see two bothers in conflict. As in future Torah stories, the younger seems to have the upper hand. (God accepted Abel’s offering). This time the disagreement ends in death. Other siblings solve their problems with less violence.

We also see that the punishment for this crime is banishment from the community. Later, when laws are formulated, this is the ultimate punishment for many sins.

It has also been asked: Who is ultimately responsible for the killing? It can be said that God knows what will happen and could have prevented the killing by taking certain actions. God could have accepted both offerings…. Or interceded at the time of the killing…. God could have created different people whose lives would not have resulted in this killing……. As with many other instances throughout history, God could have intervened, but didn’t. God has given mankind a free choice to create situations and make decisions that determine outcomes. This premise holds true all through human history (with a few exceptions seen in Torah – One being Pharaoh of Egypt).

How does man (or woman) make these decisions. To the world outside of the individual, all that is seen is a body … an individual … the decisions by that person is seen as that person’s decisions. However, the individual’s decision process becomes more complex. All decisions are based on what is perceived and learned from the outside world. This includes education – both what is observed and what is taught – secular and religious. We all have that little voice that always speaks to us in our heads…. It’s almost like our best friend that always has opinions, answers, questions … and never leaves us. We listen and act based on the content of this ever-present mental voice. But there is yet another level to decision making. It doesn’t really have a name. For lack of any other name, I will call it our soul. It contains the God-given element that is referred in the creation story when we are told that God created man in the “image of God.” The intangible “image of God,” I believe, is part of every person’s soul. When making final decisions, a person has the free will to go with the “image of God” or take another direction. This is what happened in the Cain and Abel tragedy. All through Torah (and history) mankind makes decisions. The results can reflect “the image of God” and work to create (or repair) our world in the ways envisioned in Torah … or these decisions can lead in a direction that solely benefits the decision maker and does harm to the rest of the world. That decision is up to each individual. Later in Torah, Moses presents this choice when he asks the people to “Choose Life.”

In the actions taken by Cain, we see a process that will continue through Torah and through history. It explains why bad things can happen to good people. When leaders make selfish decisions, wars can result… people can lose belongings and suffer. But, the personal decisions by individuals can also demonstrate how God can act on earth. We saw it at Katrina when many individuals risked their own safety to rescue others. We see it on the local news when it is reported that a person takes that extra step to save a drowning person … or a person trapped in a burning car. We see it in the dedication of scientists that leads to a cure for polio or aids. The “image of God” is part of every individual. And every individual has the choice to follow or reject the path of Godliness.

All this is in the first parsha of Torah, B’reishit.

Earl Sabes

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