Bereishit: The First Brotherly Rivalry by Eitan Leff (‘18)


Kayin and Hevel were history’s first pair of brothers. They were born shortly after Adam and Chavah’s inglorious expulsion from Gan Eiden, and when they matured, they each took up professions. “VaYehi Hevel Ro’ei Tzon VeKayin Haya Oveid Adamah,” “Hevel became a keeper of sheep and Kayin became a tiller of the soil[1]”(Bereishit 4:2). Soon after, each brother designated an offering to Hashem from their respective possessions. “VaYehi MiKeitz Yamim VaYavei Kayin MiPeri Ha’Adamah Minchah LaHashem. VeHevel Heivi Gam Hu MiBechorot Tzono U’MiChelveihen VaYisha Hashem El Hevel Ve’El Minchato. Ve’El Kayin Ve’El Minchato Lo Sha’ah…” “ In the course of time, Kayin brought an offering to Hashem from the fruit of the soil; and Hevel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. Hashem paid heed to Hevel and his offering, but to Kayin and his offering He paid no heed. Kayin was much distressed and his face fell.” (ibid. 3-5) This rejection is baffling; if Kayin is the Bechor (firstborn), how could Hashem have refused to accept his Korban? There are several additional factors that seem to lessen Hevel’s significance relative to Kayin. Hevel’s birth is described with the phrase “VaTosef LaLedet,” “again bore” (ibid. 4:1), implying that Hevel is not as important as Kayin. Furthermore, Kayin has a prominent reason given for his name, “I have gained a male child with the help of Hashem”(ibid), while Hevel lacks one entirely. Finally, when Hevel gives his Korban, the Torah states “Gam Hu,” “He also” gave a Korban, strongly implying that he gave a Korban out of jealousy and not a righteous desire to serve Hashem. Therefore, why did Hashem accept Hevel’s Korban and not Kayin’s?

On a fundamental level, Hevel’s Korban was simply qualitatively superior. Hevel offered the “choicest of the firstlings of his flock”, while Kayin gave ordinary “fruit of the ground”. According to Rashi (ibid. 4:3 s.v. MiPeri Ha’Adamah), the fruit Kayin gave in the Korban were inferior fruits. Hashem accepted Hevel’s Korban because he gave the best of the best, while Kayin gave the worst of the worst. Kayin was infuriated when his Korban was rejected in favor of Hevel’s, the “less important” brother. There have been other instances of older brothers being passed over by their younger, but Kayin’s case has a unique degree of severity. Avraham elevated Yitchak over Yishma’el, Ya’akov did the same for Yosef over his brothers. But in the case of Kayin, Hashem gave priority to Hevel. Kayin’s jealousy far surpassed that of Yishmael and Achei Yosef, because it was not his father who elevated his younger brother, it was The Father, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, who elevated Hevel. Kayin’s devastation was so profound that it could only be adequately expressed with the Hapax Legomenon, “VaYiplu Panav.” Even though Kayin’s jealousy was not without cause, it was nonetheless inexcusable.

Nonetheless, Hashem affords Kayin another Kayin to be elevated over Hevel. Following Kayin’s downfall, Hashem tells him “Halo Im Teitiv Se’eit. Ve’Im Lo Teitiv, LaPetach Chatat Roveitz, Ve’Eilecha Teshukato Ve’Atah Timshal Bo,” “Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, Sin crouches at the door; it’s urge is towards you, yet you can be its master” (ibid. 4:6-7). Now the ball is in Kayin’s court. If Kayin changes his nature, he will be elevated over Hevel. But if not, then he will succumb to additional sin. Kayin, however, cannot overcome his jealousy, so “sin crouches at his door.” When he was with Hevel in the field, “VaYomeir Kayin El Hevel Achiv VaYehi BiHeyotam BaSadeh VaYakam Kayin El Hevel Achiv VaYahargeihu,” “Kayin said to his brother Hevel, and when they were in the field, Kayin set upon his brother Hevel, and killed him” (ibid. 4:8). The Midrash has two different of the content of the brother’s conversation. According to one version, they agreed that one brother would receive all of the movable objects in the world, and the other would get all of the land. But then the brother who received all of the moveable objects pointed out that the other was wearing his clothes, and the brother who received all of the noted that the other was standing on his land.  Alternatively, they split the world evenly, but could not agree where the Beit HaMikdash should be built. According to both versions of the story, the argument is what led to the grave act of fratricide. Unable to compromise due to their extreme jealousy, Kayin eventually killed Hevel.

Although both brothers might have had reasonable explanations for their jealousy, they let their emotions suppress their reason. This should be a lesson for us, that no matter the situation, we should strive to avoid jealousy. Jealousy is a powerful, corrupting emotion that can cause the best of people to succumb to the worst of sins.

[1] Translations adapted from

Noach: A Model Employee by Rabbi David Einhorn

The Sin of the  Eitz HaDaat Tov VeRa: Objectivism vs. Subjectivism by Eitan Mermelstein (‘21)