Delivered on Shabbat Bereshit 5776 at Congregation Rodfei Zedek on the South Side of Chicago
There are no cities, no cities to love
There are no cities, no cities to love
It’s not the weather, it’s the nothing we love!
It’s not the weather, it’s the people we love!
– Sleater-Kinney, “No Cities to Love
Nelson Algren said that you love Chicago like you love a woman with a broken nose: because of, not despite, her flaws. Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I feel for this city, and what I can make of its flaws and my own, but this year when I reread Bereshit, I found my thoughts drawn not to the majestic description of creation in the parasha’s opening verses, or the story of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from Eden, but instead to the story of Cain, which offered more complexities than I had ever noticed before. While this episode is usually referred to as the story of Cain and Abel, it really is Cain’s story. Abel (as his name in Hebrew, Hevel, implies) is but a breath that dissipates, while Cain does all the talking and almost all of the acting: the one thing Abel does is bring a sacrifice to God, and Cain does that first. So, I would like to take a closer look at the figure of Cain and what we, as contemporary urban Jews, might learn from the Bible’s first murderer and city dweller (a conjunction I’ll come back to in a bit).
[pullquote align=right] “To the ancient way of thinking, nothing seemed more natural than to represent a murderer and an outlaw as the first builder of cities.”
[/pullquote]The best-known part of Cain’s story is his murder of his brother, Abel. We are not told why God “paid heed” to the shepherd Abel’s offering but ignored the farmer Cain’s, although commentators have seized upon the fact that Abel brought “the choicest of firstlings” while Cain only brought “the fruit of the soil,” with no superlatives. When the brothers next meet in the “field,” Cain kills Abel. This same “ground” absorbs the blood that “cries out” to God, revealing Cain’s guilt. Because of this, God declares, Cain shall be “cursed from the ground”: “If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a fugitive wanderer on earth.” Because he has failed to recognize that he is in fact his “brother’s keeper,” Cain will be divorced (geirashta) from the soil, the adamah which has been his source of livelihood and identity, as well as his source as a living being, the son of his father Adam, whose name and body recall the earth from which Cain is now separated.
[pullquote align=left] What could God’s covenant with Cain mean for city dwellers?
[/pullquote]Commentators have argued that this lack of “grounding” is what leads Cain to found the first city, Enoch, after he “settle[s]” in the “land of Nod” – perhaps so called in honor of the na vanad [fugitive wanderer] who settled there — a place where his descendants invent musical instruments and weaponry, and boast of murderous deeds. We might say that Cain has become cut off from his roots in adamah, and in founding a city named after his son is looking toward a future way of life that is more like Mitzrayim or Babylon than the pastoral life we associate with the Israelites of the Torah. As Mordecai Kaplan argues, “To the ancient way of thinking, nothing seemed more natural than to represent a murderer and an outlaw as the first builder of cities…The complexity, the turmoil, and the degeneration which marked human life in the larger centers of population were to them proof that the city had sinister origins” (quoted in Plaut, 49). Nachmanides points out that the Torah speaks of Cain’s project in the present tense (“Cain was building a city”), and takes that to mean that the project was never finished. Instead, Cain was constantly, restlessly building. In this reading, Cain’s wandering is not that of the shepherd following his flock, like his murdered brother, but that of the frenetic city dweller, generating more and more material objects in an effort to improve upon or move beyond nature. It’s ironic, in light of this interpretation of the biblical account, that Jews would become so associated with city life in the Western imagination: the Fagin figure, furtively grasping at wealth, his sickly physique the mark of Cain that signaled he was beyond the pale of decent Christian society.
[pullquote align=left] I wonder if that restless energy of cities can be harnessed as a sign of being our brother’s keeper after all.
[/pullquote]But perhaps we should look again at Cain and his city. “The mark of Cain” has come to denote a sign of evil or corruption, but in the Torah it is a sign of God’s protection. In response to his proclaimed punishment, Cain cries out to God, “Since you have banished me this day from the soil, and I must avoid Your presence and become a fugitive wanderer on earth – anyone who meets me may kill me!” Leaving aside for a moment who these other potential murderers might be when, so far as the Torah has explicitly stated, Cain and his parents are the only people other than Abel on earth, let’s consider Cain’s concern and how God responds. God did not tell Cain that he “must avoid [God’s] presence” – this is Cain’s embellishment or interpretation. And in response to Cain’s plea, God sets a mark on Cain which will protect him from vengeance by others. Does God do this because Cain’s death would end his fugitive state, thereby cutting short his punishment? Or because God realizes that no one should be completely separated from God’s presence, and that even the first murderer and city dweller should be marked by a sign of covenant? Rashi would seem to think the latter, as he says that the mark was one of the letters of the tetragramaton, the unspeakable name of God. Indeed, the word used for Cain’s mark, ōt, is the same word used for the rainbow God set in the sky as a sign of his covenant with Noah and his descendants (9:14), and of circumcision as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham (17:11). Cain may have lost his roots in the ground, but his connection to God has not entirely left him: that is to say, Cain may leave God’s presence to settle in the land of Nod, but God’s mark of protection goes with him.
So what could God’s covenant with Cain mean for city dwellers, who are always building, who might feel cut off at the roots and separated (willingly or unwillingly) from God’s presence? Seth, born in recompense for the loss of Abel, is the ancestor of Noah, the one who, his father Lamech says, “will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the Lord placed under a curse” (5:29). And the descendants of Cain? Some say these are the wicked who are swept away in the flood. But perhaps we are Cain’s figurative descendants after all, with the ability, like his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandnephew Noah, to find relief out of the toil and soil that Adam and Cain caused to be cursed.
[pullquote align=right] Here on the south side of Chicago, we are confronted with many challenges.
[/pullquote]I was in Shanghai earlier this year, and it struck me while I was there that it was perhaps a vision of where we are all headed: massive apartment blocks everywhere, with no discernable skyline, just the city spreading out in all directions. I was there under the auspices of the American Consulate, who put me up at the Ritz-Carlton, in the same complex as many consulate offices, surrounded by blocks of luxury stores of every imaginable brand and variety. But you could not drink the tap water due to contamination by industrial runoff – the hotel provided you with three bottles of water a day so that you could brush your teeth and stay hydrated – and even getting too much water in your eyes in the shower could redden them. I am accustomed to enjoying cities by taking long walks in them, but the air quality in Shanghai could make this a dicey proposition: one day, after walking for an hour, I had to take a cab to my hotel because my eyes and throat stung, and my chest hurt too much to walk back. And yet there was one dark, drizzly evening when I walked in the French Concession, a neighborhood once the home of expats which is now full of students and small shops. As if on cue, little pop-up cafes appeared along the streets and alleys, some so small that the sidewalk kitchen consisted of one burner lit by kerosene, and even those established enough to be fully indoors had a dining area with only one or two tables. I don’t know any Chinese and could not eat anything in any case – in addition to kashrut concerns, I was under strict orders from my gastroenterologist not to eat any street food – but just being among the bustle and life of the city for the time that the cafes stayed open, until they all, as if on cue, closed again about an hour later, made me feel connected to something vital about the place, that no three-story Prada store could ever provide.
[pullquote align=left] Perhaps we are Cain’s figurative descendants after all.
[/pullquote]And so I wonder if that restless energy of cities, so long as it is grounded in human connection as well as the sense of something beyond the immediate, can be harnessed as a sign of God’s protection as well as our own dedication to being our brother’s keeper after all. Here on the south side of Chicago, we are confronted with many challenges in the communities around us, challenges that we might not have to confront if we were comfortably ensconced in a suburban shul. Rising to meet these challenges alongside our neighbors can make us better as individuals and as a community, however, more connected to each other and to God through the work that we would do – the choicest produce of our labors together. In this way, our constant efforts to build would not be frantic or futile, but a kind of offering, a daily re-dedication to which we can hope both God and the children of Adam pay heed.
(English translations of Torah text from Etz Chaim.)