Plant-Based Torah: Bereshit – Doing the Right Thing the Parable of Cain

October 24th, 2019


Among the most prevalent literary motifs within Bereshit is sibling rivalry: Isaac & Ishmael, Rachel & Leah, Jacob & Esau, Joseph & his brothers. Family dynamics are constantly at play in the book of Genesis, especially considering that all of humanity originates with the primordial family of Adam & Chava. Unlike the above examples, which conclude with reconciliation, the original sibling rivalry ends in tragedy, when Cain murders his younger brother Abel.

What lead to the first bloodshed of humanity? Like the sibling tensions that follow, it originates with preferential treatment of one sibling over the other, and the jealousy that follows. It all takes place early in chapter 4 of Genesis, when the brothers bring their respective offerings to God. Cain, a farmer, brings produce from his harvest, while Abel, a shepherd, offers a choice lamb. Abel’s meat offering was accepted by God, whereas Cain’s offering was ignored. Though God reassures a dejected Cain, in the very next verse he appals God by murdering Abel.

There is much to be said about this dramatic narrative throughout history. Many have used it to justify the consumption of meat as even God considers it to be more pleasant than plant produce. Even the great Rav Kook, among the most famous advocates for religious veganism in Judaism, cites Cain’s fratricide to be the reason for the eventual concession of meat consumption following the Flood. Kook views meat consumption as an outlet for humanity’s inherent capacity for cruelty and destruction, as it was Cain the farmer, not Abel the shepherd (who had to sacrifice a lamb of his flock) who became the first murderer of another human. Kook notes that although humanity will one day unanimously return to entirely plant-based sustenance through moral and spiritual uplift, a hasty return to this through a halakhic mandate before addressing the many examples of human-on-human cruelty could result in increased cruelty between humans, as the welfare of animals was prioritized over the welfare of people – as seen with Cain & Abel.

However, a simple reading of the text clearly dismisses this interpretation. The Torah notes on numerous occasions how pleasant God finds the smell of animal sacrifices, that does not change God’s intention for humanity to live exclusively on plant produce – the commentators state that it is obvious that Abel would not have eaten any remaining parts of the sacrifice! This is not difficult, as numerous biblical texts clarify that God has neither need nor interest in animal sacrifices. Rather, God yearns for humanity’s recognition of the majesty of God’s creation and handling it with such reverence. Certainly concern with the welfare of animals and other human beings are not mutually exclusive, as the Torah commands both! This is clearly the context for God’s comforting words to Cain following his attempted offering: “And the LORD said to Cain: Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, Sin lurks at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” 

In our time, this consoling message should resonate with the righteous of our generation, who practice the Divine quality of “uplifting the downtrodden” through activism of all kinds. While doing the mitzvah of pursuing justice, it can be easy to lose patience with others and to judge them with an inflated ego. Likewise, it can be emotionally draining and frustrating that others do not or choose not to recognize obvious injustices and to change their behaviors. This can cause us to rebuke people, whether strangers or loved ones, without compassion. Not only is this most often counterproductive to the greater pursuit of justice, it is a violation of the Torah, as it is written: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you may certainly rebuke your friend, but you shall not bear a sin on his account. You must not bear a grudge against your fellow; you shall love your fellow as yourself, I am HaShem”. Attempting dialogue with anyone on an issue must be approached with love and compassion, even if those qualities are not given in return. This is the only method of effective communication, as the recipient will not feel judged or disrespected, while your righteous message will not be undermined by causing legitimate harm to another person. In the fight for righteous compassion and loving justice to all of God’s creation, we must make sure that the holy attributes at the foundation of our activism is not compromised in our frustration and lack of patience. 

Let God’s warning to Cain serve as a parable to all of us: we cannot despair in this fight! For if we do, there are consequences: we may burn out and stop fighting altogether; we may promote our message in a hostile and counterproductive way; worst of all, Heaven forbid, we may lose sight of the humanity of those who do not immediately join us in our endeavor. Just as Cain’s attempt at doing something right lead to him committing an atrocity, our attempts at righteousness may lead us to strained relationships, resentment, and dehumanization.

As vegans, we can often struggle with creating an illusion of in-group/out-group regarding eating a plant-based diet. After all, one does not eat vegan – one is a vegan. Intended or not, this often makes non-vegans feel like they are somehow inferior, rather than causing them to be willing to engage with why the action of plant-based eating has merits. Perhaps this, too, can lead folks to feel like Cain, inferior as a result of their life decisions by being identified as an inferior other. This can lead to vegans and other so-called “social justice warriors” as being portrayed as smug & self-impressed naysayers, instead of nice people who make intentional choices to oppose blatant injustices. When we despair and project our frustration at the slow pace towards change onto others, our attempts at lifting them up instead result in us tackling them. 

The great Sage Hillel taught that one who lacks patience cannot teach. May we all avoid the impatient temptations of Cain, choosing instead to follow the leadership style of Moses, our teacher: an imperfect, but humble leader who led his occasionally stubborn and rebellious people on the unnecessarily long road to redemption.
Shabbat Shalom.

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