The People Versus the Land

B'reishit, Genesis 1:1−6:8

D'Var Torah By: David Komerofsky


  • And to Adam God said,… "Cursed be the ground because of you;/By toil you shall eat of it/ All the days of your life:/Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you./But your food shall be the grasses of the field;/By the sweat of your brow/Shall you get bread to eat,/Until you return to the ground-/For from it you were taken./For dust you are,/And to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:17-19)

  • Adonai said to Cain, "Where is your brother, Abel?" And he said, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?" Then God said, "What have you done? Hark, your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground! Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth." (Genesis 4:9-12)


As we reflect upon the High Holy Days just past and the cycle of reading our Torah begins anew, are we able to step back from who we have been in the last year and start fresh? The truth is, we never lose who we have been, and we carry our mistakes with us as potential lessons. This we do as individuals, as families, and as a community. On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we had the opportunity to reflect on our deeds—both good and bad—and grow from the experience.

As we open B'reishit this year, we can take a lesson from the early history of the family of humanity. Just four chapters into the creation of the world (two chapters into the story of humanity), we read an account of violence of the worst sort—fratricide. Now one may honestly argue that Cain did not know his action would result in Abel's death. Because no one had ever died before, the family that was exiled fromEden (because of another sin) did not yet know about death, much less its causes. Still, Cain is held accountable for the murder of his brother and is punished with the infamous "mark of Cain."

It is worth noting that in the Hebrew of Genesis 4:10, God tells Cain, "Hark, your brother's bloods cry out to Me from the ground!" Why is blood written in the plural? To teach that with Abel died all of his future offspring. From this verse the Rabbis expounded: "For thus we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, that it is written: 'The bloods of your brother cry out to Me,' that is, his blood and the blood of his potential descendants.... Therefore was the first human, Adam, created alone, to teach us that whosoever destroys a single life, the Bible considers it as if she or he destroyed an entire world. And whosoever saves a single life, the Bible considers it as if she or he saved an entire world" (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5). Indeed, when Cain murdered Abel, he destroyed one-fourth of the world's population. That would be the equivalent of one-and-a-half billion people today!

It is important for us to note and to learn from the fact that the otherwise noble and beautiful beginnings of humanity are marred by errors of judgment. Imperfection is part of being human: It is what we learn from our errors of judgment that make us more like God.

Two distinct errors of judgment are apparent in B'reishit: Adam's and Eve's disobedience of God in eating the forbidden fruit and Cain's murder of his brother, Abel. And two distinct punishments are meted out by God, as noted above in the focal point section. The link between these two punishments is the connection between human beings and the land. The words adam,"human being or man," and adamah, "land or earth," share a common root in Hebrew, and their "lives" are interwoven. After all, where does humanity exist if not on the land? What B'reishit teaches us is that our actions directly impact our home, and our home suffers when we err in judgment.

God created our home and then us. In creating humanity at the end of the sixth day and giving us sovereignty over all other created things, God gave us much responsibility. The first family and every human being since have left behind lessons about how we are to handle that responsibility.

Becoming better people this year than we were last year is our role in the ongoing creation of the world. Learning from our mistakes and those of our family members makes us human—b'nei Adam, "children of Adam and Eve."


  • "Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car" here in this carload/i am eve/with abel my son/ if you see my other son/cain son of man/tell him that I…(Dan Pagis, The Selected Poetry of Dan Pagis, translated by Stephen Mitchell, University of California Press, 1996)

  • You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I Adonai abide among the Israelite people. (Numbers 35:33-34)


  1. The poem by Dan Pagis is a haunting work. The English phrase "son of man" in Hebrew is ben adam, which also means "human." In this way Cain ben Adam, which is Cain's proper name because he was literally Adam's son, is "everyman." What part of Cain is present in all of us? If he was capable of such a horrific act, might we all be?

  2. In Parashat Mas'ei, we find the laws of the cities of refuge. The selection above from that parashah, Numbers 35:33-34, reiterates the lesson from B'reishit about the connection between humans and the land. In our time, we think of pollution as something that humans create as by-products of our actions. How does our blood pollute the earth today?

  3. In what ways are human beings less connected to the land today than they were in the past? How are the experiences of farmers and ranchers (like Cain and Abel) different from those of city dwellers who rarely see the "land" in its natural state?

At the time of this writing in 2002, Rabbi David Komerofsky was the dean of students and the director of the rabbinical school at HUC-JIR, Cincinnati, OH.

Reference Materials

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