In this week’s parsha, the Torah brings the story of Kayin and Hevel. Kayin and Hevel are famous in history for being the first known case of fratricide. Their story is thought to be a simple one. Two brothers, who were unable to get along, the tension rising until one finally killed the other.
The reality of this story is much more complex than that. What really happened between Kayin and Hevel contains lessons and implications that can used to learn from, even today, some fifty seven hundred years later.
Kayin and Hevel were the children of Adom and Chavah. They literally had the whole world for the taking. Kayin was a farmer, and Hevel a shepherd.
Although popular perception has Kayin as the “bad guy” and Hevel as the “good guy”, Kayin, in fact, was the first of the two brothers who thought of offering up a sacrifice to Hashem. Offering up a sacrificial offering is meant to be a difficult thing. It is hard for human beings to part with their physical possessions. When we offer them up to Hashem, our giving shows our love for Him, as giving is a sign of love (obviously Hashem does not need these offerings, as He has no needs; sacrificial offerings, as all commandments, are done for us). For Kayin this was particularly difficult. Kayin’s name means acquisition. He was a person who desired to acquire possessions. For him to bring an offering from the ground was very difficult - so difficult, that Kayin’s offering was of an inferior quality.
Hevel, although it was not his idea to bring an offering, offered up the choicest sheep of his flock.
Hevel’s offering was accepted, and Kayin’s was not: “Hashem turned to Hevel and his offering, but to Kayin, He did not turn. This upset Kayin and his face fell”. Hashem told Kayin: “Why are you upset and why has your face fallen? Surely if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, your sin is preserved, its desire (“it” being the evil inclination, which is the part of us that demands instant gratification) is toward you, yet you can conquer it” (Bereshis 4:5-7).
Kayin’s despondency was understandable, having just had his offering rejected by Hashem. But Hashem does not reject him. He simply tells him that he has sinned through his lack of gratitude. But this is easily rectified. All Kayin must do is improve. But Hashem warns him that if he does not improve, sin will overtake him. The nature of man is not to be stagnant, but rather to improve or, Hashem forbid, regress.
What does Kayin do after Hashem reaches out to him? He ignores Hashem’s entreaties. He goes to Hevel and provokes him into an argument and kills him. The Midrash (Bereshis Rabbah) explains that Kayin proposed to Hevel that they divide the world. Kayin’s intention in making this formal split was to provoke Hevel into an argument and kill him, a ruse that worked.
Kayin kills Hevel because he is jealous. If there had been no Hevel, Kayin would not have found it difficult to achieve atonement for his sin. But once he saw that Hevel’s sacrifice had been accepted he could not bear it.
The commentators ask, why did Hevel deserve to die? The Maharal explains that Hevel was complicit in this tragic story, because he brought his offering to trump Kayin. Obviously, this was not the only reason, as his offering was accepted, but nonetheless, it was a strong motivating factor of his offering (the Gra learns differently; see the Gaon's peirush to Koheles). These are the tragic results of jealousy: the death of one brother and the exiling of the second (to wander the earth was the punishment Hashem meted out to Kayin).
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos counts jealousy as something that pulls a person out of the world (Chapter 4 Mishna 21). The meaning is obvious. When a person focuses not on what he needs to accomplish, but on his friend’s accomplishments, he has lost his purpose, i.e., he has pulled himself out of the world.