Inspired and Independent

Dena Weiss

Parashat Bereishit

The first parashah of the Torah not only speaks of creation and construction, it is also full of death and destruction. Chief among these foundational stories of our humanity is the tragic story of the first brothers, Kayin and Hevel. Because Kayin lived longer, he does more and speaks more than the brother murdered by his hand. Consequently, our attention when reading this story is often drawn to Kayin. We want to know what motivated him to bring the first sacrifice that a human ever brought; we want to know what characterized his sacrifice, and why it was not accepted; we want to know why Kayin was so incredibly angry, and what he said to his brother before killing him.1 But it is the character of Hevel, though only briefly glimpsed, that can teach us a tremendous amount about what it means to truly serve God with an independent, but also humble, spirit.

The story of the brothers’ sacrifices is quite condensed:

בראשית ד:ג-ז
יְהִי מִקֵּץ יָמִים וַיָּבֵא קַיִן מִפְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה מִנְחָה לַה': וְהֶבֶל הֵבִיא גַם הוּא מִבְּכֹרוֹת צֹאנוֹ וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶן וַיִּשַׁע ה' אֶל הֶבֶל וְאֶל מִנְחָתוֹ: וְאֶל קַיִן וְאֶל מִנְחָתוֹ לֹא שָׁעָה וַיִּחַר לְקַיִן מְאֹד וַיִּפְּלוּ פָּנָיו: וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל קָיִן לָמָּה חָרָה לָךְ וְלָמָּה נָפְלוּ פָנֶיךָ: הֲלוֹא אִם תֵּיטִיב שְׂאֵת וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ וְאֵלֶיךָ תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל בּוֹ:


Bereishit 4:3-7
In the course of time Kayin brought of the fruit of the ground as an offering to God and Hevel himself also brought of the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions. And God regarded Hevel and his offering, but for Kayin and his offering He had no regard. So Kayin was furious, and his face fell. God said to Kayin, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”


A close reading of these verses yields two important insights into Hevel’s choice to bring his sacrifice. First, the inspiration for Hevel’s offering appears to be the behavior of his older brother, as the language of וְהֶבֶל הֵבִיא גַם הוּא, and Hevel himself also brought, strongly implies. Of course, it is not unusual for younger siblings to want to do what their older brother or sister have done. What makes Hevel special is the second component of Hevel’s choice, that he chose to imitate Kayin in bringing a sacrifice, even though he didn’t see that Kayin’s sacrifice was acknowledged by God in any way.2 

From all appearances, Kayin’s sacrifice was not accepted, but Hevel is not deterred by this. Hevel is not assuming that his success is determined by whether or not his brother was successful. Although Hevel does imitate Kayin initially, he considers his identity and his own actions to be completely independent of his brother’s. Perhaps more significantly, it appears that Hevel is not necessarily looking for acceptance from God or validation from his brother or parents or anyone else. He brings his offering because he wants to bring it, not because of any advantage or praise that might accrue to him on its account. Hevel was moved to bring his flocks to God perhaps because he felt grateful, or because he thought it would bring him closer to God, but not because he thought he was ensured success. This is reflected in Hevel’s name, which means vapor or nothingness. He does what he does and offers what he offers with no guarantee. He is comfortable with effort for naught.

Seforno’s3 interpretation of Kayin’s attitude shows it to be in stark contrast to that of his brother:

ספורנו בראשית ד:ו
למה חרה לך. למה קנאת באחיך כדואג על שקבלתי קרבנו ברצון…?  


Seforno to Bereishit 4:6
[God asked Kayin:] Why are you furious? Why are you jealous of your brother, worrying that I accepted his sacrifice willingly...?


According to this interpretation, God’s question to Kayin reflects that Kayin has the opposite attitude of Hevel. Kayin was not upset about the fact that his sacrifice wasn’t accepted until God accepted his brother’s “instead.” God chastises him, “Why are you so upset? Why are you getting so angry over the fact that Hevel’s sacrifice was accepted?! The acceptance of Hevel’s sacrifice does not make your sacrifice less valid. And if you improve, maybe I will show favor to you.”

Hevel demonstrates how important it is not to let someone else’s failures determine whether you yourself are willing to do what they have done. Hevel is able to look at the silence that meets his brother’s sacrifice as not necessarily determining whether or not his sacrifice will be met with the same unresponsiveness and opacity from God. Hevel doesn’t look at what did happen and see it as the proof of what will happen; he looks at what could happen. He knows that he is not in his brother’s shadow. Hevel understands that he could follow in Kayin’s footsteps and nevertheless end up in a new, different, and better place. As the Seforno continues in God’s critique of Kayin, Hevel’s foil and opposite: 

ולמה נפלו פניך? כי כשיש לקלקול איזו תקנה אין ראוי להצטער על מה שעבר אבל ראוי להשתדל להשיג תקון לעתיד:


[God asks Kayin]: Why has your face fallen? When there is something that can be done to fix what has been set awry, one shouldn’t be upset about the past. Rather, one should try and fix it for the future.


God teaches the lesson to Kayin that Hevel intuitively understands: Even if the first sacrifice has failed, the second sacrifice might succeed. Hevel sees what has happened to his brother and thinks, “Maybe I can learn from him, and maybe I can improve upon him. Maybe I can achieve what has not yet been accomplished.” Hevel’s optimism is fostered by looking at his fate as being independent from his brother’s—he is willing to try again. Kayin is vexed and depressed because he can’t imagine things getting better. He sees the acceptance of his brother’s sacrifice as something threatening, rather than inspiring. He sees it as fatal, rather than as hopeful.

What is so unique and instructive about Hevel’s character is not only his fundamental independence of spirit. We also learn from the way that the fact that he is not looking for acceptance and validation from others or from their experiences does not mean that he thinks that he is better than everyone, that he has nothing to learn from them. To the contrary, he saw what Kayin did and was inspired by it! 

R. Kalonymous Kalman Epstein,4 the Ma’or VaShemesh, details how to navigate the tension between being independent of the opinions of others and dependent on their wisdom in his commentary to Parashat Kedoshim. He begins by responding to the Rambam’s suggestion that people need to separate themselves from negative influences.5 Although he agrees that in certain circumstances one may need to separate oneself from people who encourage bad behavior, he emphasizes that the approach of isolation is limited. When one is by oneself, then the only person they can learn from is themselves:

מאור ושמש, פרשת קדשים
והאמת הוא, שכן צריך האדם לברוח ליערות, ולפרוש עצמו מן המון עם, כדי שינצל מדעות רעות וממעשים רעים; אך זאת אינו מועיל אלא להנצל מן הדברים המעכבים עבודת השם יתברך, אבל להשיג הקדושה העליונה - אינו זוכה עד שידבק עצמו אל אנשי השם - עובדי ה' באמת, ולהשתתף עמהם יחד בעבודה רבה, הן בתפילה והן בלימוד התורה, ועיקר המצות הכל יהיה בכנסיה יחד עם מבקשי ה' - ואז יוכל להשיג הקדושה העליונה.
אבל אם האדם ירצה לפרוש עצמו מן הציבור ולהתבודד עצמו להתפלל ביחיד, או לשום עיקר עבדות ה' הנעשה בכנסיה יחד - בלתי אפשר שישיג הקדושה העליונה. ולא עוד, אלא שיוכל לנטות חלילה מרוב גופי תורה אם יתבודד עצמו ויפרוש מן הציבור... שאי אפשר לשום נברא להיות ביחיד, זולת הבורא יתברך שהוא יחיד ומיוחד.


Ma’or VaShemesh, Parashat Kedoshim
And the truth is that a person does need to escape to the forests and separate himself from the general multitudes in order to be saved from bad attitudes and bad practices. But this will only be effective for saving oneself from the things that inhibit the service of God, may He be Blessed. However, in order to achieve the higher holiness? This will only happen if he attaches himself to the notable people, those who truly serve God, and if he participates with them in great service whether it be tefillah or studying Torah. The crux of the mitzvot is that everything should be in a collective, joining together with those who seek God—then he can achieve the higher holiness.

But if a person wants to separate himself from the group and to isolate himself to pray as an individual or for any critical component of the service of God that is [usually] done in a joint collective—it is impossible for him to achieve the higher holiness. And not only this, but he will be able to stray (God Forbid!) from many of the fundamentals of the Torah, if he isolates himself and separates from the group. For it is impossible for any creature to be alone except for the Creator, who is alone and unique.


According to the Ma’or vaShemesh, we need other people to keep us on the proper path, both to inspire us with their service of God and to keep us grounded when our own service of God tends to the idiosyncratic, and eventually, God forbid, incorrect. Here the Ma’or vaShemesh reflects R. Yehudah HaNasi’s great teaching in the beginning of the second chapter of Mishnah Avot:

משנה אבות ב:א
רבי אומר: איזו היא דרך ישרה שיבור לו האדם כל שהיא תפארת לעושיה ותפארת לו מן האדם.


Mishnah Avot 2:1
Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi] says: What is the straight path that a person should choose? One that is considered beautiful by the one who does it and beautiful by humanity.


Like Hevel, we should be inspired by the beautiful behavior of the people who surround us and also use their guidance when it is relevant. But the other side of Hevel, his independence from the opinions of other people, is also reflected in the continuation of the Ma’or VaShemesh’s thoughts on holiness and separateness in Parashat Kedoshim:

מאור ושמש, פרשת קדשים
כי העיקר הוא התבודדות המחשבה לחשוב תמיד ברוממות אלהותו יתברך, הגם שהוא בתוך קהל רב - ידבק מחשבתו תמיד בהבורא יתברך, כמו שכתב בעל חובת הלבבות בשער הפרישות כי עיקר הפרישות הוא שידמה אדם בעצמו כשהוא בבית מלא בני אדם כריק מהם. רצה לומר, שידבק עצמו במחשבתו בהבורא ברוך הוא שכמעט לא ידע שיש כאן עמו שום אדם. ובפרט בעת התפילה צריך אדם לבוא לדביקות גדול, עד שלא ידמה בעצמו שיש כאן שום בריה רק הבורא ברוך הוא, וזהו עיקר התבודדות.


Ma’or VaShemesh, Parashat Kedoshim
For the primary form is to be isolated in one’s mind and to be constantly thinking about the loftiness of the Blessed God. Even when he is in a large community, he should constantly attach his mind to the Blessed Creator, as the author of the Hovot HaLevavot,6 wrote in the “Gate of Separation,” that the primary element of separation is that when a person is in a house full of people, he should imagine that [the house] is empty. This means to say that he should attach himself to the Blessed Creator with his mind, as if he doesn’t know that there is anyone else there. Specifically, a person needs to come to great attachment during prayer until it almost seems to him that there is no other creature there aside from the Holy Blessed One. And this is the fundamental form of isolation.


According to the Ma’or VaShemesh, every person needs to have a place for themselves, a place that is uninfluenced by the opinions and judgments of others, a place where a person can go and be one with God and one with themselves. The relationship is fluid and changing. Sometimes you’ll be looking to learn from people and seeking to follow their example, and sometimes you’ll need to step away, step inside yourself, and use your own, independent intuition as your guide.

This dynamic is prevalent in all of our lives and touches on questions from the most trivial like what to wear or what food to serve, to the most fundamental questions of our identities as moral people and servants of God. The question of whether to charge our own path or follow the example of others. The question of whether to accept the feedback we receive from others—whether explicitly or implicitly—or to choose to be true to ourselves, our personalities, and our priorities. This tension will not and should not be entirely resolved, but Hevel presents a good picture of the way we can learn from others, but not feel that our fates necessarily will or must follow theirs. Hevel teaches us not to be discouraged by past results and instead to be encouraged by future possibilities. 

1 See Bereishit 4:8.

2 These verses are slightly ambiguous and it is possible to read them differently, as saying that Kayin only gathered the material for his sacrifice before Hevel, but they performed their sacrifices simultaneously.

3 R. Ovadiah Seforno, 1475-1550, Italy.

4 1753-1823, Poland.

5 Hilkhot De’ot 6:1.

6 R. Bahya ibn Pakuda, 11th cent., Spain.