What kinds of families and family dynamics do we find in the book of B'reishit? What can these relationships teach us about our own families?
"Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. Adonai paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering, God paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell." (Genesis 4:2-5)
Cain and Abel were brothers, children of the first couple, Adam and Eve. Abel's offering to God is described as the "choicest." By contrast, the Rabbis tell us that Cain's offering was not the best that he could give. (Radak, a 16th century rabbi). God accepted Abel's offering but turned away from Cain's. Cain became jealous, dejected, and angry—a combination of emotions so powerful that they led to murder, the first, but certainly not the last, fratricide. Cain and Abel had different strengths and modes of expression, which led to competition and conflict between them. The violence they began sadly continues in our own world.
The book of Genesis is filled with stories of brothers who fought with one another. Abraham's two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, could not get along. In the next generation, Isaac's sons, Jacob and Esau, were so contentious that Jacob ran away from home in fear for his life when Esau threatened to kill him. And even in the next generation, Jacob's sons sold their brother Joseph into slavery in Egypt.
Sibling rivalry seems as though it is hardwired into family life. Yet not all families devolve into the violent behaviors that scarred the first family in Genesis. Competition can be healthy when brothers and sisters push each other to realize their potential and find ways both to complement and compliment each other. One of the more recent developments in educational psychology recognizes the different intelligences people possess, even people from the same family. It is natural for one brother to be a shepherd and the other a farmer, or one sister a teacher and the other a doctor, or one person a talented musician and the other a social magnet. It takes time and love to appreciate the diverse strengths in the people in our own families, but the alternative is estrangement, alienation, or worse. Cain and Abel warned us with their negative example. They teach us what not to do in our own families. It is up to us to read their story and learn from it.
To Talk About
A. With younger children (3-5)
- Why was Cain angry with Abel? Have you ever felt that way towards your brother, sister, or another person in your family? What did you do?
- What are some of the ways that you are different from your brother, sister, or best friend? How do those differences make you feel?
B. With older children (6-8)
- Can you think of times when your feelings made you do something you were later sorry for doing?
- What are some strategies you can use to get control when your feelings make you want to act in a way that you won't be proud of later?
- Read Cain and Abel by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001). Discuss what the Biblical story has to say about the way we treat one another today and how our interactions make peace or strife.
- Our sages tell us that Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Menasseh, were the first set of Jewish brothers who did not fight, marking a break from the pattern. Inspired by their example, Jewish parents traditionally bless their children on Shabbat eve, just before Kiddush. For boys, the blessing includes, "May God make you like Ephraim and Menasseh." This blessing is particularly appropriate in contrast to Cain and Abel. For girls, the Shabbat blessing includes, "May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah." Do you think you learn more from stories about people who do things the way you are supposed to do them or from stories about people who misbehave?
B’reishit, Genesis 1:1-6:8
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 18-55; Revised Edition, pp. 17-50;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 3-34