Photo: Ata Awisat
Photo: Ata Awisat

Torah portion: Bereshith

Bible tells us that we are descendants of Cain, as much as of Noah. Cain’s descendant’s are all around us, and they are we

We are the descendants of Seth. Seth – born in the likeness and image of Adam – is the ancestor of Noah, the most righteous of men, and Noah is the father of Shem. How fortunate we are indeed to be born of such noble stock.


But whatever became of Cain?


Cain had a son, Enoch, and built a city in his honor. The Biblical scholar Robert Alter understands this as an expression of the “anti-urban bias in Genesis” that attributes building cities to Cain.


Cain’s descendants establish husbandry, create music and instruments, and introduce metallurgy and tools. And then they are mentioned no more.


Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his commentary to the Etz Hayim Humash tells us “by attributing urbanization, music, and tool and weapon making to Cain and his descendants, the Torah may be signalling its ambivalence about human efforts to detach from, and improve on, the world of nature.”


But unless we are reading this on the wall of a cave, Cain’s legacy still seems to be all about us. The Bible credits Cain and his descendants with the founding of civilization and the creation of human culture. It is they who continued God’s creation.


But if the line of Cain ends after seven generations, with the birth of Na’ama, where did all our technology come from? Who carried on after the descendants of Cain disappeared from the genealogy of Genesis? Who is responsible for the continued evolution of civilization? Who continued the march of human knowledge and creativity?


Married to Noah?

Rabbi Abba bar Kahana, in the midrash Bereshit Rabba, gives us a stunning answer: “Na’ama was the wife of Noah.”


Why would Rabbi Abba imagine in his worst nightmare that Noah married Na’amah, the last descendant of Cain?


Perhaps it is because he noticed that the names Noah and Na’amah are synonyms, and that Noah is the son of Lemech the son of Metushelach, while Na’amah is the daughter of Lemech the son of Metushael.


Noah ben Lemech ben Metushelach is virtually identical to Na’amah bat Lemech ben Metushael. They are essentially the masculine and feminine forms of the same name. They are the right and left hands of the same body.


What could the Bible be telling us by such an obvious parallel?


According to Rabbi Abba, it is telling us that we are the descendants of Cain, as much as of Noah. Cain’s descendant’s are all around us, and they are we.


Although we are descendants of the righteous and saintly Noah, that pedigree is preceded by our lineage to Cain. The evil in our genetic makeup precedes the good.


That very idea appears in the midrashic compilation Pesikta de Rav Kahana, which tells us that we are born with the yetzer hara – the evil inclination – that grows within us for thirteen years before our yetzer tov – our good inclination – begins to develop.


But as the midrash in Bereshit Raba observes, the yetzer hara – the so-called evil inclination – is not necessarily evil at all:


And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good…- vehinei tov me’od zeh yetzer hatov, vehinei tov me’od zeh yetzer hara – very good refers to the good inclination and very good refers to the evil inclination.


Why? Because “were it not for the evil inclination no one would build a house, take a wife, give birth, or engage in commerce.”


Yetzer hara – the “evil” inclination that we inherit from Cain – is not inherently evil, nor is it inherently destructive. It is what gives us the possibility of choice. It is what makes us human. As Avot deRabbi Natan says: eyn yetzer hara bavheima – animals do not have an evil inclination.



The legacy of Cain is amorphous and amoral. It can create as easily as it can destroy. What we inherit from Noah is the desire to use our creativity and our freedom of choice in positive ways, the ability to harness potentially destructive energy as a force for good. Without Cain, goodness would be impotent and irrelevant.


Cain makes civilization possible; Noah turns that possibility into a social reality.


What Rabbi Abba saw in the genealogy of Genesis was that there is no good without evil. It is the potential for evil that makes good possible.


What we learn from Rabbi Abba’s observation is the complexity of human nature. We are all as capable of good as of evil, and our potential for evil is what makes it possible for us to be truly good. That, indeed, is what God warned Cain himself (Genesis 4:7):


Surely, if you do right, you will be uplifted. But if you do not do right, sin couches at the door; it longs for you, but you must be its master.


Torah Roundtable / Rabbi Dr. Alexander Even-Chen

Why did Cain kill Abel? The midrash offers several explanations:


“Cain spoke to Abel his brother, and when they were in the field…” (Genesis 4:8): About what did they quarrel? Come, they said, let us divide the world. One took the land and the other took the movables. The former said: The land you stand upon is mine. The latter responded: What you are wearing is mine. One said, strip! The other said, fly (off the ground)! As a result, “Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.”


Rabbi Joshua of Sakhnin quoted Rabbi Levi, who said: They both took the land and they both took the movables. And what did they argue about? One said the Temple will be built upon my land, while the other said the Temple will be built upon my land… As a result, “Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.”


Judah bar Ami said: They argued about Eve, the first woman.


Rabbi Ibo said: Eve had long returned to dust. And what did they argue about? Rabbi Huna said: An additional twin was born with Abel. One said, she is mine because I am the eldest, and the other said, she is mine because she was born with me. As a result, “Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.” (Genesis Rabba 22:7)


Would it be accurate to say that this midrash presents the causes of conflict and war among men – territory, property, and women? How is this expressed in the midrash?

How are we to understand Judah bar Ami’s statement? Does he mean to say that Cain and Abel fought over their mother?


What is Rabbi Ibo’s reply to Rabbi Ami? What, then, did Cain and Abel argue about? Was it about their sister? In what sense? Sexual? What would you add to this midrash?


Courtesy of Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies


פרסום ראשון: 10.20.06, 10:33
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