Of Carriages and Trees

Headshot of Rabbi Ronnie Cohen
Birkat Mevarekhim Hahodesh
Headshot of Rabbi Ronnie Cohen
Rabbi Ronnie Cohen z"l

Rabbi Ronnie Cohen z"l was a rabbinic student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies beginning in 2002.  After his ordination he returned to AJU to teach and mentor other young rabbis.  His commentaries were written during this time.

posted on October 9, 2012
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

Reuben and his family lived a simple life. They had a small farm which supplied all their needs, and occasionally a little extra. There was always food on the table, clothes for Reuben, his wife and his three daughters to wear, and a roof over their heads. Reuben and his wife, Sarah, worked hard six days a week, and enjoyed the Sabbath, truth be told, more by resting than by praying. They dwelt in a small community of similarly situated families, and seemed to live an idyllic existence.

One day, a stranger appeared at the synagogue on Friday night, and Reuben invited him home to spend the Sabbath with his family. The stranger was very congenial and proved a wonderful Shabbat guest. They had an enjoyable Friday night dinner, and their Saturday meals were amiable as well, with pleasant conversation and good cheer. On Sunday morning, as Reuben walked the stranger out to his wagon, the stranger thanked him for the wonderful hospitality he had been shown over the Sabbath, and said that he had a gift for Reuben, a "small token of appreciation" was the way he put it. Out of the back of the wagon, the stranger pulled a small seedling.

"This tree," the stranger told Reuben, "has mystical properties. If you plant it in the ground, water it and tend to it as necessary, it will grow into a beautiful shade tree. More importantly, though, it will ensure that your family continues to enjoy the material prosperity you enjoy today. Not only that, but if you give it more water than it really needs, you, and your entire community will grow richer. However," the stranger warned, "you will not all grow richer to the same degree. So you must be on guard!"

Reuben thanked the stranger, and without putting too much stock in his bizarre statements, planted the tree in the perfect spot for a shade tree. Having been a farmer all his life, Reuben instinctively knew how much water to give the tree, and for the next several years, life continued on as it had.

About five years later, Reuben and his family were struggling. Not that they were starving, or that the farm was producing less; rather, as luck would have it, all three of their beautiful daughters were engaged to be married within a few months of each other, and Reuben and Sarah were concerned about the costs of these three weddings coming one after the other. And besides, Reuben had been wanting a new carriage for a long time, and with the weddings coming up, he knew that this was something that would have to be put off for many years. As Reuben was ruminating about these matters, he happened to be passing under the shade of the tree they had been given by the stranger, and Reuben recalled the bizarre "mystical properties" of the tree. "What would it hurt," he wondered to himself, "if I gave the tree a little more water than it needs? Chances are," he thought, "the man was not entirely in his right mind, and absolutely nothing will happen except for the tree becoming a little over-watered. On the other hand," he continued to think to himself, "what if the man was right? How could it hurt to become a little richer, and even better to share this good fortune with the whole community?"

So saying, Reuben began to give the tree just a little more water every week than it needed. And sure enough, as the weeks went on, his crops grew taller, with fewer weeds and pests, his sheep and goats gave more milk, his chickens laid more eggs, and by the end of the season, Reuben and Sarah had enough money to pay for the three weddings, even if the carriage still had to wait. In celebration, they decided to have a thanksgiving party for the entire community.

On the day of the party, Reuben and his family were dressed in their best washed and pressed holiday clothes, and the tables, decked out in their finest linen cloths, were filled with sumptuous delights. However, as the guests came, Reuben and Sarah noticed that they were all dressed in brand new clothes, made of the finest imported silks. And their jewelry-men and women alike had gold rings with precious stones, and the women all wore diamonds in their ears and gold on their arms. And to top it off, they came in the most fancy, ornate carriages.

In the middle of the party, Sarah came over to Reuben with tears in her eyes and cried, "Did you see how our neighbor Rachel is dressed? That incredible gown? Those beautiful earrings? And did you see the carriage they came in? Why don't we have that, Reuben?"

Reuben tried to reason with her. "But Sarah," he said, "what does it matter what Rachel has? We have enough. We can see our daughters married off, and still live the comfortable life we've been living all these years." But his heart really wasn't in it. You see, he was thinking about the magnificent new carriage that Rachel and her family had come in.

* * * * *

Let's leave Reuben and Sarah stewing in their envy of their neighbors for a while, while we talk a little about this week's Torah portion. This week, we begin reading the Torah again from the beginning, from Genesis. And as we do so, it is natural to wonder one more time, as many of us do every year at this time, is any of this true? The Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel ... it's all so fantastic. Even if we are inclined to give credence to some of the Bible Stories-King David, Joshua, the Exodus, maybe even the patriarchs and matriarchs-how do we wrap our heads around these very early stories?

An answer I learned many years ago from a course taught by Dennis Prager, is that the Torah is true. Torah never claims to be history; it never claims to be astrophysics or evolutionary biology. All Torah ever claims to be is what its name is: Torah, teaching. The Torah is true in that the stories of the Torah, especially the early ones, the "mythology" as it were (my term, not Prager's), are there to teach us something. With that in mind, I want to look at the story of Cain and Abel, and see what is true about this story.

The whole story of Cain and Abel is told in a sparse 16 verses at the beginning of Chapter 4 of Genesis. We all know it. Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain is a farmer, and Abel a herdsman. They both bring sacrifices to God, and Cain's sacrifice is rejected, while Abel's is accepted. Cain becomes very distraught over this:

6 And the Lord said to Cain,

"Why are you distressed,
And why is your face fallen?
7 Surely, if you do right,
There is uplift. 
But if you do not do right,
Sin couches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master." [NJPS translation]

After this speech by God, Cain says something to Abel (the Torah never says what, and of course, the commentators and the Midrash have a field day trying to figure out what was said), and then kills him. God confronts Cain, asking "Where is your brother Abel?" Cain gives his famous reply, "Am I my brother's keeper?" We then move on to Cain's punishment-banishment-and the mark of Cain placed on him, so that no one would kill him.

There are many questions we could ask about this story, but the one I want to address is what God asks Cain in Verse 6, after Cain's sacrifice is rejected. "Why are you distressed,/ And why is your face fallen?" Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vishiva (1885 - 1941, Transylvania), author of She'erith Menachem, says (as quoted in Itturei Torah) that it has to be more than simply that his sacrifice is rejected. To clarify, he tells a story about Rabbi Hayyim Soloveichik (1853 - 1918, Brisk). They once asked Rabbi Soloveichik why it was that when he made a decision declaring an entire cow treif, or all of someone's tools treif, the person would accept the decision with good grace, despite the tremendous financial loss. However, when it came to a civil dispute between two individuals, and he found against one of the litigants, that litigant would immediately begin to object, to say that the rabbi didn't understand how the world worked, and that an injustice had been done him, even for trifling sums of money. Rabbi Soloveichik answered that in matters of kashrut, a God-fearing Jew would accept the rabbi's decision with love; however, in a civil matter, the losing litigant would be upset, not so much about the fact that he lost, but rather about the fact that the other fellow won.

Rabbi Menachem went on to explain that this is what God is asking Cain in verse 6: "Why are you so distressed? Is it because your sacrifice was rejected, or because Abel's was accepted, and that's really what's bothering you?" For Rabbi Menachem, the "truth" of the Cain and Abel story is not that murder happens, or even that fratricide happens; it is that jealousy is a major-perhaps the major-cause of strife in the human condition. Torah's way of teaching this lesson is to make jealousy the cause of the first-the archetypical-blood-letting on the face of the earth.

Now one might object and say that this lesson is already amply covered at the end of the Ten Commandments. But that is the way of Torah. In the Ten Commandments, we learn the Law: "Don't covet your neighbor's ox"-or carriage. But in Genesis, we learn the reason for the law, and the disastrous consequences of disregarding it.

The inherent truth of this lesson is all around us today in the 21st century. Look at the "Occupy Wall Street" movement of last summer, or the social protests in Israel at around the same time. They weren't caused by poverty per se: things were a lot worse in the United States during the Depression, or in Israel during the rationing of the early fifties. These protests were caused by "income inequality," the tremendous gap between the wealthy few and the rest of the country. Professor Shlomo Maital of the Technion Institute of Management (former director of the National and Economic Planning Authority in Israel's Economics Ministry) wrote in the Jerusalem Report of September 24, 2012, that income inequality in Israel is higher than in every developed nation in the world except Mexico, and that this is what fueled the social protests. And it's not much better in the United States. A September 28 article in BusinessWeek stated that the Census Bureau reported on September 12 that income inequality in the United States had reached a new high. "Income inequality" is just another way of saying economic jealousy.

So what can we do about this? I think there are answers on two distinct levels: societal and personal (or, for the economically inclined, macro and micro). On the societal level, we have to work for policies that will spread the wealth more evenly, so as to reduce these jealousies that are endemic to the human condition. As God said to Cain in verse 7 above, "Sin crouches at the door," meaning people will always look to what their neighbors have, and become jealous (dissatisfied, upset, angry) if there is too much of a disparity between what they have and what their neighbors have. This is simply human nature.

But on the personal, individual level, we have to struggle against that aspect of human nature. As God continued saying to Cain in verse 7, "Its urge is toward you,/Yet you can be its master." We have the power to fight and overcome this jealousy, this particular manifestation of our 'yetzer hara'-our evil inclination. We can do so by learning from our tradition: the sage Ben Zoma said in The Ethics of Our Fathers (Pirkei Avot 4:1), "Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his portion"-or with his carriage.

Shabbat Shalom.