Words are powerful. In Genesis, chapter one, God creates through words: “God said, ‘Let there be light!’—and there was light. . . . God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters,’. . . . God now said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image,’ ” (Genesis 1:3, 6, 26). In chapter three, the serpent’s words, “Did God really say: ‘You may not eat of any tree of the garden’?” (3:1) led to Adam and Eve’s eating the forbidden fruit and expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
But sometimes it is the lack of words that is important. The story of Cain and Abel is characterized by what is left out as much as by what is included. The most glaring omission is the statement Cain made to his brother, Abel, before murdering him, but that is not all that is missing from the story.
For example, after giving birth to Cain, Eve explained his name, saying, “I have gained [kaniti] a male child with the help of the Eternal” (4:1), but when she then gave birth to Abel she did not explain his name. Perhaps she did not care (second children are often treated with less indulgence by their parents than the first child) or the meaning of the name Abel, Hevel—“mist,” “breath,” or “vanity,”—was so obvious that it needed no explanation. In any case, his name already hinted at Abel’s fleeting nature.
Next, we learn that Abel was a shepherd while Cain worked the ground (4:2). Eventually, each brings an offering to God: Cain from the fruit of the ground and Abel from the choicest of the firstling of his flock. While the text appears to indicate that Abel offered the best of his flock, whereas Cain simply offered whatever was available, the midrash notes that Cain was the first to make an offering to God and Abel, perhaps trying to outdo his brother, responded with his offering.
God pays heed to Abel’s offering, but ignores Cain’s offering. Why? Once again, the Torah is silent. It is tempting to assume that God’s response is based on the quality of the offerings, but can we be sure?
Cain is naturally upset that his offering is ignored so God tries to reassure him that although the potential to sin is always with us (“sin crouches at the door”) we have the ability to overcome it (“you can rule over it”) (4:7).
The text then continues, “Cain said to his brother Abel. And when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him” (4:8). What did Cain say that led to the first murder? The Aramaic Targum and the Greek Septuagint add the words, “Come, let us go out into the field,” as if Cain was simply taking his brother to an isolated place to kill him (see W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised ed.[New York: URJ Press, 2005, pp. 27–28).
The midrash, however, suggests verbal exchanges that might have led Cain to kill his brother. For example, “What were they discussing? They said: ‘Come, let us divide the world.’ One took the lands and the other took the movable objects. One said ‘The land on which you are standing is mine.’ The other said, ‘The clothes you are wearing are mine.’ One said: ‘Take them off!’ The other, ‘Get off [my land]!’” (B’reishit Rabbah 22:7).
This midrash then offers an alternative explanation: that they divided the Land between them, but each claimed that the Temple would be built on his portion. A third opinion is that they were arguing about their mother, Eve, regarding which son would procreate with her (since there is apparently no other female in the world) to assure the future of the human race.
Nehama Leibowitz points out how these three opinions “explain the root causes of bloodshed and murder” throughout history, namely economic/territorial disputes, religious disputes, and sexual passion (New Studies in Bereshit (Genesis) [Jerusalem: Haomanim Press, n.d.], p. 39). The story, thus, is not just about two brothers fighting, but about conflict throughout human history.
The medieval commentator Rashi, however, simply thinks that Cain “picked a quarrel” with Abel in order to find a reason to kill him (Rashi on Genesis 4:8). Rashi’s interpretation indicates that the precise reason for their dispute is irrelevant compared to the enormity of the conflict and subsequent murder itself.
Each of these explanations has its appeal, but none attempts to explain why the text omits the words that were spoken. What does this glaring absence teach us?
The text may be silent to teach that no words can justify murder; that nothing Cain might have said—or that no words that might have been exchanged between the brothers—could mitigate the act of one human being killing another. Murder is murder, and any attempt to rationalize or justify it is unacceptable. No doubt the brothers exchanged words, but the Torah purposely omits them to teach this lesson.
Or perhaps the text is silent as if to say: it is what is unspoken as much as what is spoken that can lead to conflict and even murder. Cain wanted to express his anger toward Abel, but the words would not come out of his mouth, which led to physical violence.
When individuals or nations cannot resolve conflicts with words they often resort to violence. When words cannot solve a dispute, violence or war is often the result.
Another possibility is that Cain said something to his brother, but the text does not include his words because Abel did not or could not hear them. Cain attempted to resolve their conflict with words, but Abel refused to do so. This teaches us that when words are not heard or are not understood it is as if they were not spoken. It takes two to have a conversation, and unless both parties uphold their role, meaningful dialogue cannot take place.
Our tradition calls us to account for words that should be spoken but are not spoken. We are to “reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account” (Leviticus 19:17). But how many of us have the courage to call another person to account for misconduct?
Finally, after Cain murders his brother and tries to deny his responsibility with the words, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”(Genesis 4:9) there is another voice that “speaks.” “The voice of your brother’s blood cries to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:1).
Cain can silence his brother’s voice, but he cannot silence the voice of his blood. There is the voice/witness of words and there is the voice/witness of deeds. When words are no longer possible, a “voice” will still call attention to deeds that have occurred and the need to account for them. In the end it is this “voice” that is more powerful than any words and rings out through the generations.
In the kabbalistic tradition, words and letters have tremendous power beyond what we might imagine. The kabbalists point out that in all languages, letters have symbolic power, and so chaise, the French word for “chair” is made up of the letters that represent “chair.” This is true with almost all languages. Letters and words have representational power.
But in Hebrew, letters have creative power. We need to imagine God sitting in front of a cosmic typewriter, punching the keys of the different letters of the Hebrew alphabet and watching the world come into being. God punched in the word adamah and the earth was formed. When the earth was formed, it was made up not only of molecules, atoms, and quarks, but also of the Hebrew letters that make up the word adamah. The ground, or the earth, was made up of infinitely small alefs, dalets, mems, and heis. Remove these constituent letters and everything comes tumbling down. Remove the letters that make up the words for “man” and “woman,” ish and isha, and man and woman come tumbling down. Each one of these Hebrew letters has a different cosmic energy force that God used to create the earth and its moveable parts.
This thinking is supported by the first text of the Hebrew Scriptures: “B’reishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz” (Genesis 1:1), which is translated by the Lurianic Kabbalist, “In the beginning, with wisdom, God created et.” The word et is not seen by the kabbalist as a red flag directing us to the direct object hashamayim (heaven); but, rather, the word et is seen as a word that encompasses every Hebrew letter from alef to tav. But really, these Hebrew letters are not merely Hebrew letters. They are cosmic energy forces, with which God creates the world. There is nothing so powerful as the Hebrew word.
At the time of this writing in 2012, Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer was senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom in Skokie, Illinois, and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary, Skokie, Illinois.
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