Everything is vanity and a torture of the soul (Ecclesiastes 1.14)
As rain falls right on cue here in Jerusalem, I am exiting sukkot with this phrase swimming through my mind. Everything is vanity and a torture of the soul. Sukkot is traditionally labelled זמן שמחתנו, ‘the time of our joy.’ Strikingly, it is in the middle of our happiest festival that we read Ecclesiastes. Repeated in varying forms and phrases, הַבֵל – translated as vanity / futility / uselessness, becomes a thematic backdrop to this most existential scroll. What are we to do, the author asks, if הכל הַבֵל (everything is vanity)?
This week we read parashat Bereishit. Recently expelled from their idyllic garden, Adam, and mostly Eve, conceive and bear two children. The brothers take to professions, culminating their work in sacrifices to God. As the familiar story goes, the denial of Cain’s offering in the face of his brother’s acceptance leads to Abel’s death. With the phrase הכל הַבֵל still echoing in my ears, the text practically bolds and highlights that the life of Abel – from the Hebrew, הָבֶל – is destined to be nothing more than vanity.
Yet so many questions remain of this short and seemingly terse story (It’s only 12 sentences!). Why was Cain’s offering not received? What led Cain to strike his brother? Did Cain even know what death was?
Just as with Abel, we can learn much from the name of his older brother. Cain קַיִן we are told is named because קניתי איש את-ה׳. Eve ‘purchased’ a man with the help of God. Cain comes from the root ק.נ.ה to purchase. I offer that Cain, as was his nature, attempted to buy God’s favor. His offering was an attempted act of purchase rather than a gift of the heart, and thus God rejected it. Furthermore, the root ק.נ.ה is related to that of ק.נ.א, jealousy. Cain’s envy was the motivating factor in his fateful act.
Viewing the story through this lense, we learn that the finished product for those who attempt to purchase favor lies in rejection, while those who passively go along their way end in futility. But I do not believe we are merely destined to our fates. Shlomo Carlebach asks the question, in what way was Abel’s death his own fault? Why did he not see the envy in Cain’s heart and reach out saying, “Brother, I see how much it pains you. Let me share with you all I know of serving God.”
Sometimes life appears unfairly preordained. It is specifically because of this we read Ecclesiastes on Sukkot, the time of our joy. As if to say, we always have a choice – no matter how futile it may all seem. Happiness and love can always guide our way through the looming shadows. For even at the beginning, all we have to do to banish the darkness – is say, “let there be light.”