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Drash on Bereshit 2023

Rabbi Dean Shapiro

Beth Shalom, Auckland, New Zealand

Our Sacred Stories remind us: Adam and Eve were the first human beings. Their children were Cain and Abel, the farmer and the herder. Each son makes an offering to God, Cain’s being produce and Abel’s the best of his flock. (Genesis 4:4) God accepts the lamb Abel sacrifices but denies Cain’s offering. The rabbis say this is because Abel brought God his best, while Cain did not.

How must Cain have felt: Rejected? Embarrassed? Worthless? Who among us does not know how powerful, how devastating those feelings can be?

Enraged and in pain, Cain kills his brother — the first murder. And we all descend from Cain. His complex cocktail of emotions — greed, shame, eagerness, despair — exists in each of us. His readiness to lash out exists in us all.

How often do we fail to acknowledge those parts of ourselves that we fear or find repugnant? These aspects of ourselves — our rage, our desperation, our pride — live in our Shadow.

To be human is to have a Shadow — that realm of the psyche where repressed feelings and behaviours dwell. As they marked Cain, so they mark us all. They keep us from being our fullest selves.

If, for example, anger is unacceptable in our family, we may repress it to an extent that we are unable to tap into anger even when it is justified. We lose access to healthy indignation, self-protection, and upset. And when those feelings inevitably arise, they shock us. We handle them poorly because we lack the understanding, the language, and the skill to wield them. At the same time we may despise ourselves, knowing that those feelings reside within us.

But this is not the end of the story — neither for Cain, nor for us.

After Cain’s offering is denied, God reproaches him but also offers the possibility of redemption: “Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right sin crouches at the door, its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master” (Genesis 4:7).

If we don’t crack the door, if we don’t confront our demons, we make those closest to us our victims, just as Cain did. If we never learn from our demons, they remain as dangerous as the rock in Cain’s raised hand.

Paradoxically, our rejection of what we find unacceptable in ourselves requires reconciliation: that is, atonement.

So what are we to do?

We are to go thoughtfully through life, pausing to observe our feelings, however fleeting. They are evidence, traces, of our true selves. We might take notice when other people’s poor behavior upsets us, and we might consider why particular faults bother us so much – and ask whether those faults are also our own.

We are called to be kind and patient with others. Should we not extend that same grace to ourselves as we stumble on the rocky path to wholeness?

When we encounter the litany of wrongs canonized by the rabbis in the Vidui, we pray them sincerely. We inquire of each if it might, in fact, reside within us, behind a locked door. That inquiry itself is the beginning of integration, like a key slipped into a rusty lock.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner puts it this way:

We may go down into ourselves with a flashlight, looking for the evil we have intended or done — not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover the holy spark within it.

When true awareness allows us to integrate our faults into our full selves, we are victims to them no longer, and we are less likely to victimize those closest to us. Then, indeed, wholeness is at hand.

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