Bereshit: The missing conversation

Bereshit: The missing conversation

In the typology of creation we find the following categories: “domem,” inanimate earthly matter; “tzomeach,” or vegetative state; “chai,” animal and marine life, and finally the “midaber,” humankind, with its signature ability to speak and communicate.

Indeed, throughout history, from our earliest moments on earth, our communicative powers have been employed for both positive and negative purpose. And so it is that we find Adam and Eve in the early moments of human history as they negotiate the gifts of the Garden of Eden, with few responsibilities save their restraining from eating from the Tree of Knowledge, ultimately using this power of speech to deflect responsibility from themselves and onto another apparent precipitating cause for their early error. Adam’s speech asserts that “the woman whom You gave to be with me – she gave me of the tree and I ate.” And Eve’s retort was simply: “The serpent deceived me and I ate.” Each expresses another source for their respective calumnies.

And as they are forced out of Paradise and must make their way, “mikedem l’Gan Eden, “East of Eden,” they enter into a new phase of this early earthly existence, bearing children who similarly will find their moments of travail and judgment for their sins of commission and omission. It is interesting to note how envy and enmity easily enter into this picture of early life, in an episode involving nothing more than agricultural gifts. When the offering to God of Abel, the shepherd, is favorably received while the less impressive gift of Cain, the first farmer, is rejected, the result is great jealousy resulting in an unimaginable reaction.

The Biblical narrative of that episode writes that “Cain spoke with his brother Abel. And it happened that when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.” (Genesis 4:8). Rashi tries to maintain that there was indeed a serious discussion that preceded this heinous act. “Nichnas imo b’divrei riv u’matza l’hitgollel alav l’hargo” – that “he entered into words of quarrel and contention to find pretext against him, to kill him.”

Interestingly, though, is the fact that the Torah text only refers to a conversation but offers no content of what was shared or communicated by Cain in the aftermath of his Divine disappointment. One could thus argue from silence, from this missing information, that the words were so harsh that they could not be stated. Additionally, one could claim that the absence of the dialogue only points to the paucity of effort by Cain to own up to his wanting act and make amends for his failure to please God with his offering. Instead, responsibility is again shifted elsewhere; resentment wells up within him; rage overtakes him and he sees not his brother but instead his antagonist. He is wracked with guilt and projects his inadequacies onto his brother. The result is the first case of fratricide in human history.

It is also a tragic act that sets the stage for what will follow throughout history where words frequently fail or their very absence too often is translated into tragedy. Equally compelling in our efforts to grasp the course of events that led to this dastardly act of one person killing his brother is the strong possibility that there was in fact little to no conversation between them in the aftermath of Cain’s disappointment.

The opportunity for words, for positive discourse to rise above the jealousy and disappointment of rejection, was obliterated by the sheer madness that claimed Cain at that moment. The gift of dynamic dialogue and of meaningful speech that so distinguished humankind from the other categories of creation was supplanted by the enormity of the enmity that prevailed.

This episode in the early annals of human history and the Biblical account is then in many ways an extension of the earlier event with Adam and Eve who corrupted their “koach ha-dibbur” to lay blame elsewhere, but to a much more aggravated degree. Now the very possibility for constructive communication fails in the face of rage and the conversation that could have quelled the confrontation is denied by Cain’s bruised pride and overbearing hubris.

Especially important for successive generations to take to heart will be what was not recorded and possibly never said, reminding us in no uncertain terms that we are endowed with a unique power of speech and faculty of dialogue that should and can avert the extreme and irreversible damage of violence and death so long as we recognize and relish this capacity and use it well.

It is true that there are times when “silence is golden” and words fail and are woefully inadequate to capture the enormity of tragedy. It is even said of President Calvin Coolidge, who was especially taciturn, that when he was queried about why he was so short on words that he wryly responded: “My Pappy always told me that you never have to take back that which you never said.” That might have worked well for him, and in a real way talk can be cheap. Still, “silence” in the words of our rabbis “is (too often) acquiescence.” In the face of tragedy and misunderstanding, the power of speech used wisely can avert a great many ills of life and society. In a real way, then, this latter episode in our sedra with Cain slaying Abel underscores the great import of the statement of King Solomon in Proverbs, that “mavet v’chaim b’yad ha-lashon” – “death and life reside in the tool of the tongue and in the power of speech.”