The story is legendary, and seemingly simple. Cain and Abel are brothers, the children of Adam and Eve. They offer sacrifices to God, but because Abel offers his best to God and Cain does not, God only accepts Abel's sacrifice. In a fit of anger or jealousy (we're not sure which) Cain kills his brother and then lies to God about it, famously asking, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen. 4:9)
Look more closely at the story, however, and another frame emerges. "In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to God from the fruit of the soil; and Abel for his part brought the choicest of the firstlings from his flock." (Genesis 4:3-4)
God doesn't ask for a sacrifice, but after a period of time, Cain decides to show some gratitude and respect. There are no instructions, there is no established practice of rights and wrongs, just the idea - and Cain decides to invent a new thing we now call 'offering a sacrifice.' Abel, possibly seeing what Cain is doing is moved to do the same, but improves upon Cain's idea by choosing to offer not just anything, but his very best.
I can imagine Cain's indignation. It was his idea! Abel stole it and then beat Cain at his own game!
God speaks directly to Cain, to reassure him that he has nothing to worry about. If Cain tries again and offers his best, then God will accept his sacrifice as well, but, if he instead chooses to not do his best, then "sin will crouch at the door" (Gen. 4:7).
Perhaps Cain was too upset, but regardless of his reason, he ignores God's advice. Instead of making a second, better offering (not to be confused with offering his second-best), he chose to kill his brother. In other words, he put the blame on his brother, not on himself, and acted to eliminate his competition. He was wrong, even if we can sympathize with his pain, and he paid a terrible price..
We can derive two lessons from this. First, life is not a race, and success is predicated, at least in part, on learning from each other. We don't need to be first to succeed. Second, and I think more importantly, we have the ability to choose how we respond to adversity. We can do as Cain did, and blame (or even harm) others when we don't bring our best; or we can learn from Cain's tragic mistake and strive to always bring our best.
Reading this story seemed strangely and uncomfortably familiar. Far too many of us act more like Cain than Abel, and this seems especially true in politics - where it is common practice to be say little and do less, and make sure to blame the other guy (or gal) for what is wrong in the world. Imagine what would happen if, in our personal lives and in our political discourse, we all tried to be less like Cain and more like Abel.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras