Rabbi Stephen Kahn

Parshat Bereishit

This week’s parshat, which is the first Torah portion of the Book of Genesis, is dense! Beyond the narratives of the creation of the world, we also find the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the “Song of Lamech,” and a strange, albeit intriguing, report of Nephilim, who were the offspring of “divine beings,” who cohabited with humans.

In Chapter 4:1-16 of Bereishit, we find the story of the first recorded fratricide in the Hebrew Bible — the moment when Cain murders his brother Abel. Within this brief account, we learn of the ambiguous “offerings” the brothers voluntarily bring to God. Unlike the very specific instructions regarding the sacrifices given later in the Book of Leviticus, there is no description of what kind of sacrifice they should bring. Moreover, God does not even ask for the offerings in the first place! The Torah reports that, “Cain brought an offering to Adonai from the fruit of the soil and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock.” In the same way that the offerings were given without any explicit reason, God “looked with favor to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering God did not have favor.”

From this account, the Torah does not give us any reason why God “looked with favor” and accepted Abel’s offering while rejecting Cain’s. This parshat simply shares that Cain became “angry and fell on his face.” While neither the parshat itself nor the rabbinic commentaries describe Abel’s response to God’s acceptance, we are given several reasons for Cain’s painful and dark response. A midrash shares that “God disregarded Cain’s offering … and he was humiliated in his [own] eyes, since God accepted his brother’s offering but did not accept his.” Another commentary explains that Cain became so angry and rejected that his face figuratively “turned dark.” This “darkness,” the rabbis explain, is what ultimately led Cain to murder his brother Abel.

The renowned psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung called this dark feeling as the “shadow.” He explained that every person has a shadow — a dark side that Jewish tradition calls the “Yetzer harah,” or “Evil Inclination.” It is that part of ourselves that we ignore, dismiss and deny, yet it is present, Jung teaches, whether we accept it or not.

In his book, “Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche,” Jungian psychoanalyst and author Robert Johnson shares that our shadows, as individuals, can lead not only us, but our entire society toward destruction. He states that, “To refuse the dark side of one’s nature is to store up or accumulate the darkness. We are presently dealing with the accumulation of a whole society that has worshiped its light side and refused the dark.”

While this idea may seem … well, pretty “dark,” Johnson also shares that we can both address and understand our shadows in order to heal our broken world: “Any repair of our fractured world must start with individuals who have the insight and courage to own their own shadow. … The tendency to see one’s shadow ‘out there’ in one’s neighbor or in another race or culture is the most dangerous aspect of the modern psyche … it is not the monsters of the world who make such chaos but the collective shadow to which every one of us has contributed.”

Within the story of Cain and Abel, we learn that the component parts of our shadows are found in experiences of the kinds of rejection and humiliation that become hatred. Like Cain, each one of us is, however, given the choice between “falling” into our own darkness or doing what is “right,” and finding “uplift,” as God suggests to Cain.

As we begin this new cycle of learning from our sacred Torah, let us find the strength and courage to overcome our shadows as individuals so that we can bring healing to our very broken world. May we find renewed insights and inspiration in the words of Torah in the coming year. JN

Rabbi Stephen Kahn is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel.

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