Monday, November 8, 2010

The Mark of Cain

"It was after the passing of days that Kayin brought
from the fruits of the soil, a gift to YHWH,
and as for Hevel, he too brought--from the first-
born of his flock, from their fat parts.
YHWH had regard for Hevel and his gift,
for Kayin and his gift he had no regard.
Kayin became exceedingly upset and his face fell.
YHWH said to Kayin: Why are you so upset?
And why has your face fallen? Is it not thus:
If you intend good, bear-it-aloft, but
if what you intend is not good,
at your door is sin, crouching,
towards you he lusts--but you can rule over him.

Kayin said to Hevel his brother . . .
But then it was, when they were out in the field
that Kayin rose up against his brother
and he killed him. . .

YHWH said to [Kayin]:
No, therefore, whoever kills Kayin, sevenfold
will it be avenged. So YHWH set a sign for Kayin
so that whoever came upon him would not strike
him down. Kayin went out from the face of YHWH
and settled in the land of Wandering, east of Eden.
Genesis 4:3 - 8, 15 - 16; The Shochen Bible,
(translated by Everett Fox)

It is hard to understand why a man might rise up and murder one he calls his brother, his friend and companion. Even when both men are flawed, having had run-ins with the law, it is hard to imagine what would impel a man to such anger that he would not stop, that he would beat his friend to death and leave him lying in a pool of blood by the side of the road..

This is the same primeval story that was told first in Genesis, and in its aftermath, the question of what is in those ellipses--what happened that one man would rise up and kill a man that he loved as a brother--this same question haunts me today. It has haunted me since I found out Friday night that the Professional Revolutionary, a man that I knew, worked with, and ultimately had to distance myself from, had killed another young man that I know, the Virtual Artist, who was just pulling his life together after his own troubles with the law.

Nobody knows what Kayin/Cain said to his brother, Hevel/Abel. Nobody knows what Hevel said or did in reply, if anything. The context of the story makes it clear that it is mythos, a story that introduces the meaning of choosing evil over good into the context of a primeval setting after the birth of man as a moral being. No explanations are given, for no rational reason for the murder, the first fratricide, are possible.

What we do know is that a human being can be waylaid by passion, but that the human being can master it. For even though Cain felt the need to compare himself to his brother, and to believe that his brother received favor that he did not, the issue is not that. In the story, G-d makes no mention of that feeling, but tells Cain that the passion he feels can be mastered. This is the difference between an animal and a human being. An animal does what it does based on instinct and not thought. A human being, endowed with the ability to differentiate between good (life), and evil (death), can and must choose actions compatible with life and avoid death. That passion is an animal spirit, "crouching at the door" like a predator, but that the human being can be its master.

In the story, we do not know how that passion was inflamed to the point that Cain could take the life of his brother.That part has been left out, replaced only with the silent ellipses that remind us that there were words between the passion and the action. Although the text is silent on how Cain killed his brother, the midrash and commentary tell us of violent murder: Cain bashed in his brother's head with a stone.

So it is with the death of the Virtual Artist at the hands of the Professional Revolutionary. What words passed between them when the Revolutionary went to visit the Artist? We don't know. Who said what, who did what, and who threw the first punch? We don't know. Only one man is left to speak, and we are not privy to what he has said. We only know the consequences of what was transacted between them: the brutal murder of the Artist in what appears to be the result of passion unbridled by any thought; of rage so great that even after the Artist must have been down, the Revolutionary continued to hit him until near death, the Artist was left alone by the side of the road, awash in his life's blood. Left alone, to be found by a passer-by, he died en route to the hospital.

Even though I hate the sin, the action of a man I know that destroyed the life of another man I knew, I remain haunted. My anger at what happened to the Artist makes me loath the man who did it. My horror at the violence of the death makes me wish that I had never had a conversation or shared a meal with the murderer. I feel tainted.

And yet, as surely as I mourn the death of the Artist, so I find myself filled with sorrow at the unforgivable nature of the act of murder the Revolutionary committed. For in that moment, at that stark point of choice, he gave up his humanity. I am haunted by the unchangable direction of time, by a deed so final that no mending of it is possible. I am haunted because there is no reconciliation possible between the man and the friend he killed. And I mourn for the loss of the Revolutionary, too, and for the loss of any hope of an understanding between us in the fullness of time; I mourn for him as I would for a child of my own, lost to the land of wandering, east of Eden.

For the other part of the story is the confrontation of Cain with the finality of his action. His brother's blood cries out from the ground, and is consumed by the soil. And so the soil will no longer sustain the murderer. He is no longer of the earth, to live among his fellow human beings in peace. Instead, he will wander, an exile homeless to the end of his days, marked by the sign that he has murdered his brother.

The mark of Cain. It is not the punishment for murder. That is the exile and the wandering. But the mark is a sign meant to set Cain apart for all time. The mark is the memory of what he has done, a memory known to himself and to others, so that he wanders restlessly outside the good will one human being has toward another; the murderer wanders outside the very presence of human regard. The mark of Cain is the mark of exile not from the very soil of the earth, but from the regard of every other human being.

When I learned of the Artist's death by the hand of his friend, closer than a brother, I tore at my clothes in anger and cried out: Baruch Dayan Emet! Blessed is the Judge of Truth! And we will mourn for him, and cry out at the horror of his death. We will gather to remember his short life, and to express our unfathomed sorrow that he no longer shares the earth with us, his life untimely taken.

But there will be no such cry, no such mourning together, no such remembering and sending forth for the Revolutionary. My sorrow for him will be expressed in silence, his loss from among us deemed necessary and right. Because he has taken upon himself the Mark of Cain in that one aweful moment of choice, a moment about which the story is silent.
And so in silence will each of those of us who knew him mourn his loss from among human kind.


Anonymous said...

I thought I had commented, but perhaps it did not go through.

I'm sorry for both losses and I believe I can see the pain in your words.

Hardly any life is worth taking and no life is worth wasting in anger ... or otherwise.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Thank you, Gadabout-Blogalot. (I still love your blog-name). Certainly no innocent life is worth taking, but I am particularly taken by your phrase "no life is worth wasting in anger". That is exactly why I mourn for the Revolutionary, even though--even though--there can be no reconciliation between us because of the thing that he did when he murdered the Artist.
And that is painful.
I am relieved that you understand why I am in pain for both losses. I was not sure if I could explain it well enough.