Bereshit: "If I Am I"

There are many persons in this week's parshah. Chief among them, of course, are Adam and Eve, the very first persons on earth. But the names of quite a few others are listed. Some are obscure, like Kenan and Mahalalel. But two others are very well known, and for interesting reasons. I refer to Cain and Abel.

Regular readers of this column know that I rarely mention sources from the field of Jewish mysticism. Kabbalah is, in my opinion, a body of knowledge which is reserved for people who are especially learned and very pious. The current popularity of Kabbalah among people who lack proper “credentials” is something which I deem inappropriate. Nevertheless, I recognize that the field of Kabbalah bristles with amazing insights into theology, certainly, but also into the human psyche.

One of the insights which is especially meaningful to me is the assertion made in Kabbalistic literature that Cain and Abel represent two of humanity’s archetypes. Cain and Abel each have very different souls, different neshamot. Some of us have Cain's soul, and others of us have Abel's soul. Do not mistake those with Cain's soul for the "bad guys," and those with Abel's soul for the "good guys." The distinction is much more subtle than that.

Here is how the distinction was explained to me by a very qualified student of Kabbalah, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, whose source was a Kabbalistic text known as Sha'ar HaGilgulim. Those of us with Abel's soul tend to be contemplative, compliant, and a bit perfectionist. Those of us with the soul of Cain tend to be active, assertive, and creative. In Cain's case, these traits went too far. His active and assertive tendencies led him to murder his brother. But his descendants used their talents in constructive ways, inventing musical instruments, agricultural tools, and, sadly, military weapons.

Abel, on the other hand, was murdered before he had any descendants, so we know nothing about what their contributions to human culture might have been. But what do we know about Abel himself that would help us understand the nature of his "soul?"

Here is what we know about Abel: He was the younger of the two, he was a keeper of sheep, and after "Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil, Abel followed suit and brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock" (Genesis 4:2-4). In the Hebrew original, the phrase which I translated as "followed suit" reads veHevel heivi gam hu, which translates literally as "and Abel, he too brought."

Cain initiated, Abel responded. This brief phrase tells the entire story about Abel's soul. He was a follower, not a leader. He was a "convergent" thinker and not a "divergent" thinker. Creativity was not his thing. Conformity was.

Several questions beg to be asked. Is conformity a fault or a virtue? Is creativity and originality to be valued over obedience and compliance? Are we, as religious Jews, not obligated to conform to the comprehensive set of standards of behavior? Does not excessive creativity clash with traditional values? Are we to find fault with Abel because he "followed suit," because "he too brought" a sacrifice to the Lord?

There is much in our Jewish faith that emphasizes the importance of obedience and admonishes us not to "stray after our hearts and eyes" into new and untested directions. There is no doubt about that.

But blind obedience comes with great spiritual risk. Blind obedience can lead to superficial religious behavior, behavior which is devoid of heartfelt emotion, of a sense of meaning and purpose, of mitzvot performed without proper kavanah, proper motives and proper intent.

One of my own spiritual heroes is the highly original and astoundingly creative nineteenth-century Hasidic sage, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. He taught of the dangers of imitation and artificiality in the practice of religious faith. He was concerned about the developments he noted in the world of observant Jewry during his time. People tended to dress the same, think the same, and act the same in their religious devotions.

He famously said, "If I am I because I am I, and if you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But, if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then you are not you and I am not I."

For the Rabbi of Kotzk, there was something almost sinful in Abel's behavior. To offer a sacrifice because my brother is offering a sacrifice is an empty act, perhaps even a hypocritical act. One must do good deeds because one feels inwardly inspired to do so, and not because he or she feels compelled to emulate the good deeds of others.

I have often thought that the basis of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk's convictions was the observation made so frequently by the Sages of the Talmud. The Talmud contains many statements to the effect that each of us is different and unique. We were created with different facial features, with different fingerprints, with different emotional sensitivities, and with different intellectual capacities. These differences must find their expression in our religious behavior. I cannot be "I" if I am merely mimicking "you."

Here is one Talmudic passage which contains this theme. It is from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 33: "A human produces a coin from one form, and all the coins are identically alike. But the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed Be He, produces every coin in the form of the primeval Adam, and yet no man perfectly resembles his fellow."

What lesson can be learned from the fact that the Master of the Universe created us so different from each other? This must be the lesson: We must come to know the ways in which we are different from others, we must be thankful for our uniqueness, and we must find ways to serve the Almighty authentically and creatively, for only then will we be actualizing our unique purpose on earth.

There is a prayer we recite on Yom Kippur. It reads: "My Lord, before I was formed I was unworthy, and now that I have been formed it is as if I had not been formed." Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, in Olat Re’iyah, his commentary upon the liturgy, explains: "Each of us is born in one special moment in the course of millennia. Each of us is born into a specific set of circumstances. Before that moment, and in other circumstances, we were not yet worthy of being born. Now that I have been born at this time, and in this place, I have a divinely ordained unique function to perform. On Yom Kippur, we confess to the Almighty, in this prayer, that we have not lived up to the responsibilities of a person born at this specific moment and in this specific place."

As we begin this new year, let us look within ourselves and discover our own individuality. Let us channel it toward the will of our Creator.

This is one of the lessons of this week's weekly portion, Bereshit, “In the beginning.”