Sibling rivalry, they say, is as old as the hills. As old as the very hill that Cain and Abel brought their gifts to, only to have Abel's accepted and Cain's rejected, resulting in the first murder of God's newly minted world. This spurning of Cain triggered a sequence of events that ended with a killing and banishment, a disastrous destruction path of fugitive wandering that would last, for Cain and his progeny, for generations.
Was Cain's gift faulty from the start? Could he have done something better, something different, dug deeper into his own soul to find what it was that would have truly been a gift to give? Was his generosity false? His giving facetious? A feigned attempt to curry favor, gain an advantage, only to use it for his own edification and uplift?
The text provides a clue, embedded in Cain's emotional reaction, non-verbal, and God's spoken response. "Why art thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted up? And if thou doest not well, sin coucheth at the door; and unto thee is its desire, but thou mayest rule over it."
Cain is told a difficult lesson. One of the most difficult lessons for any of us to learn: When people say good things about us or when we achieve something worthy of someone's praise, we are proud and our faces show it. But when we don't achieve; when we miss the mark; when we offer what is wrong, we sometimes run the risk in our own lives of the degenerative power of self-destruction. Losing control, our anger and resentment control us.
Not a good situation, I'm sure you'll agree.
Once I sat with a dying man whose sons couldn't figure out how to get along in this critical moment in the family's history. The brothers themselves had a history of a deep and bitter rivalry which was becoming an impediment to the ability of the family to move forward toward the ultimate of offerings--the return of a body to the earth from whence it came. Key decisions like Burial and Cremation and Kaddish and Shiva and Minyans and Food and Mirrors Being Covered were, initially, as weapons of mass destruction, like primordial ancient objects, the hurled rocks of Id and Super Ego contending for the higher of the sacred offering.
Not a good situation, I'm sure you'll agree.
But a beautiful thing happened as the result of talking. Everyone listened. Harsh words were exchanged along with loving words. Difficult things were said and were followed by words of compromise and comfort. Space was created, in the rocky terrain of verbal and emotional cultivation that equalized what each brother had to offer, making both gifts acceptable to the Greater Cause.
This week's Parsha states: "And the Eternal said unto Moses: Speak to the the priests the sons of Aaron and say to them, 'There shall none defile himself for the dead among his people.'"
Now granted, the text here is primarily concerned with the fear of contamination, not an insignificant concern in the ancient world, far removed from our own era's contemporary professional practices of cleanliness in dealing with the dead in our current age. (Of course, this has its own extremes, bound up in a troubling distancing that we create from the death experience by outsourcing to skilled professionals, housing in marginal areas of society, and not fully facing the inevitable in a way that has taught generations of human civilization to face what we all must face: our own demise.)
Nevertheless, I couldn't help but read the text as one which warned families not to "defile" themselves with unnecessary rivalry in the face of profound and uneasy but necessary choices that we all must make to help those we love close out our lives, say goodbye, make arrangements, and die. Some experience the process of dying with violence in their hearts, tear open continental rifts in the territory of family, and destroy, sadly, tragically, irrevocably, the very bonds that generate and regenerate who and what we are.
Two different teachers read this text quite creatively with regard to importance of speaking, of using words and language in order to alleviate unnecessary suffering and the risk, even the danger of evil or violence, coming from matters related to the dying and the dead.
"None shall defile himself," says the Magid of Mezerich, means that when they stand before their people, "they must be very careful not to defile their souls through haughtiness or personal concerns." I see this over and over with families: a peace-making which occurs when people sublimate their personal desires for the greater good of the family unit in dealing with a reality which reflects people personally as well as the corporate body of the family. Sublimation of rivalrous views by talking, by speaking, by saying -- to echo the text -- allows for the space of compromise and shared offering to be sanctified.
Similarly, the Hozeh of Lublin writes that as in Torah text, the speaking that is done should be like the priests, sons of Aaron, who were known for their words of peace. In speaking words of peace before the dying and the dead, in speaking words of peace in the family at the moments before the dying and the dead, peace becomes the altar upon which all subsequent sacrifices are made.
I had one such conversation recently with a family, where some challenging conflicts were averted by speaking to each other, sublimating, listening and making peace. And to celebrate, we all shared a drink. It was 5:30 pm, after all, the sun was setting, and moving toward peace was a moment worthy of celebration. Most of us had a bourbon but the dying man had pinot grigio ice chips, small, infinitesimal molecular constructs of pleasure. There was a break from his headache; a smile on his face; a plan for his end coming in to focus. We asked, "How's the pinot grigio?"
And with a smile and raised brow he whispered, "Delicious."