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Kayin and Hevel - Balancing Humility and Confidence

Striving for acquisitions is positive when directed toward spirituality. Only a person who is motivated to acquire spiritual greatness can make a real difference in the world

Kayin and Hevel - Balancing Humility and Confidence

Kayin was the eldest son of Adam and Chavah. He appears in parashas Bereishis. The most notable episode in his life was his infamous murder of his brother, Hevel, after Hashem rejected Kayin’s offering and he became jealous of his brother, whose offering was accepted. Kayin spent the rest of his life in forced exile as punishment for his murder, until he was accidentally killed by his descendant Lemech.

Hevel was the second son of Adam and Chavah. His short life is covered in parashas Bereishis. He was the victim of the first murder in history, when his brother, Kayin killed him in cold blood.

The first brothers in the Torah were sadly also the first people to argue, and ultimately Kayin gained the unenviable title of the first murderer in history. It is very common to focus on the glaring shortcomings that Kayin demonstrated in this shocking incident, but Chazal do not find Hevel free of blame either. Indeed, it is obvious that had HaShem deemed Hevel worthy, He would have protected him from Kayin’s efforts to kill him – the fact that Hevel was killed indicates that he was not guiltless. However, it is not clear what his failing was.

The key to understanding the failings of both brothers is a remarkable comment by the great Kabbalist the Arizal. He tells us that the gematria (numerical value) of “Hevel” is 37 (the hey is 5, the beis is 2, and the lamed is 30), while that of “Korach” is 308 (the kuf is 100, the reish is 200, and the ches is 8). If you add the two together, the total is 345, which, remarkably, is the gematria of “Moshe” (the mem is 40, the shin is 300, and the hey is 5). While some gematrios are subject to a healthy dose of skepticism, it is clear that a gematria originating with the Arizal has great significance. He also explains that Moshe is a reincarnation of Hevel, while Korach is a reincarnation of Kayin. By understanding the connection between these figures, we can begin to gain a far deeper understanding of Kayin and Hevel.

It is first instructive to analyze Kayin. As is the case with most of the more unsavory characters in the Torah, Kayin was not simply an evil person with no redeeming qualities. Indeed it is important to note that it was Kayin, not Hevel, who aroused himself to offer a korban to G-d. He clearly recognized HaShem and sought to concretize that recognition with a sacrifice. It seems from the commentaries that his main failing is implied by his name, Kayin which originates with Chavah’s words after his birth, “I have acquired (kanisi) a man for HaShem.”[1] Thus, the name is connected to the word kinyan, acquisition.[2] Kayin’s essence was to want things for himself, as the Kli Yakar writes at length; he explains that Kayin chose to work the land because he desired to acquire as much of this world as possible. This desire was the reason his korban consisted of the lowest-quality produce; he was unwilling to give of his best land to HaShem. Moreover, this trait led to arrogance, jealousy, and anger. When he saw his korban rejected and Hevel’s accepted, he became very angry. Anger comes about when things do not go the way one thinks they should. Thus, a person gets angry only if he believes he knows what is best for him, i.e., he knows better than HaShem Himself. This is the height of arrogance, for one should humbly recognize that HaShem knows best and that if things do not pan out as expected, then that is the ideal course. Kayin’s arrogance caused him to get angry and ultimately murder his brother.

Hevel’s name and essence seem to have been the exact opposite of Kayin’s. “Hevel” means emptiness, and this is a suitable description of Hevel’s character. Whereas Kayin was obsessed with acquisition and self-aggrandizement, Hevel leaned to the other extreme: self-nullification. This middah certainly had positive aspects, for Hevel was very humble and unattached to physicality. This is why he was glad to offer up the best of his flock to HaShem. However, such overarching humility also has a downside. When a person is so humble that he doesn’t believe he can initiate anything, he simply follows the lead of others. Such a person will not achieve what is required of him in the world. Hevel epitomized this lacking in his failure to offer up a korban on his own. He clearly recognized the importance of korbanos and of developing a relationship with HaShem, but he was brought a korban only after his brother offered his own. This flaw, the commentaries explain, is the reason Hevel was not protected from Kayin despite the fact that he performed a mitzvah, and that usually one who performs a mitzvah does not suffer as a result.[3]

The commentaries note that neither Kayin or Hevel was worthy of being the progenitor of the rest of humankind; that honor fell to Adam’s third son, Sheis. Kayin’s character was too imbalanced on the side of acquisitions, arrogance, and jealousy, while Hevel was overly humble to the point of self-nullification and suppression of creativity.

As stated, the Kabbalistic works tell us that Korach was a reincarnation of Kayin, while Moshe was a reincarnation of Hevel. The concept of reincarnation is largely beyond the scope of most people, but the one aspect we can appreciate is that every new incarnation faces nisyonos (tests) similar to those of his predecessor, and he is to rectify the latter’s mistakes.

In this vein, it is very easy to understand the connection between Korach and Kayin. Like Kayin, Korach possessed great qualities; indeed, the Midrash says he was a great scholar.[4] His task was to rectify the overbearing acquisitiveness of Kayin; however, he failed in a very similar way. The Gemara contains a list of people who desired something that was not theirs – the first two people on that list are Kayin and Korach![5] Kayin wanted to marry Hevel’s twin sister[6] and to acquire his possessions,[7] while Korach wanted the Kehunah.[8] Sadly, Korach fell into the same trap as Kayin: He wanted more than he deserved, and when he did not get it, he fell to great depths.

Hevel’s mistake was too much self-nullification. His reincarnation was Moshe Rabbeinu, who indeed rectified Hevel’s failings while maintaining the positive aspects of his trait of humility. Moshe emulated Hevel’s great humility, but without causing himself to be inactive. On numerous occasions he showed great courage, initiative, and confidence in serving HaShem. One of the most striking examples is when he returned from forty days on Mount Sinai only to be greeted by the sin of the golden calf. It required immense courage and initiative to do what Moshe then did: throw down the precious Tablets, because he realized the people did not deserve them. Indeed, the Torah’s final praise of Moshe pertains to his bravery in breaking the Tablets.[9] In this way, Moshe proved to be a perfect rectification of Hevel.

We have seen in the characters of Kayin and Hevel the need to attain the correct balance between confidence and desire for success, on the one hand, and humility, on the other. Striving for acquisitions is positive when directed toward spirituality. Only a person who is motivated to acquire spiritual greatness can make a real difference in the world. However, one must be very careful that this trait of acquisitiveness not spill over into the physical realm, creating a desire for more possessions. When that happens, the traits of jealousy and anger soon follow. Kayin and Korach fell into this trap. Humility is admirable, but it can be misapplied. There is such a thing as anavah pesulah, the wrong kind of humility. This involves using humility as an excuse for inaction, which normally stems from laziness. This seems to have been the failing of Hevel, whereas Moshe adopted the positive aspects of humility without its negative side. May we all emulate Moshe and develop the right balance of initiative, self-confidence, and humility.


Notes and sources

[1] Bereishis 4:1.

[2] Some commentaries criticize Chavah for expressing the idea of acquisition.

[3] See Kli Yakar, Bereishis 4:1, and Maharal, Gur Aryeh on Bereishis 4:1.

[4] Bemidbar Rabbah 18:3.

[5] Sotah 9b.

[6] Rashi, Sotah 9b.

[7] Maharsha, Sotah 9b.

[8] Rashi, Sotah 9b.

[9] The Torah tells us of “the strong hand and awesome power that Moshe wielded before the eyes of all Israel” (Devarim 34:12). The Midrash, cited by Rashi, explains that the phrase“before the eyes of all Israel” refers to Moshe’s decision to publicly break the Tablets he had just received.

From the book "Beacons of Light"