This week is the beginning of the annual cycle of readings from the Torah. How are we to turn this material around in our minds, and assimilate it, in a manner that does not compromise either our respect for tradition or our contemporary sense of reason and morality? One traditional method of understanding the relevance of the ancient texts is to explain them by means of a parable couched in contemporary terms and images.
Genesis 4:3-7 is one of the most profound passages in the Torah. It reads, in the Jewish Publication Society’s 1982 translation:
Ignoring the fact that Cain and Abel have different livelihoods, our text has the following logical structure. Offerings are made by two different people; one offering is described in a way that indicates it is superior. God attends to one person and his superior offering, and ignores the other. The person whose offering is ignored is distressed. In response, God provides no explanation of His motives or reasons and does not offer the rejected person the opportunity to argue against the Divine decision. Instead He says, “You have control over your response to My rejection. If you choose to control your distress there will be a positive effect, and if you choose not to there will be a negative effect.”
I’ll give an interpretation of this passage by means of a parable with the logical structure I’ve indicated, starting with the standard rabbinic introductory formula.
“But for Cain’s offering God did not have regard and Cain’s face fell.” To what may this be compared? A parable:
It’s obvious from the parable that my interpretative application of God’s rejection of Cain’s offering can be applied to any and all “God-given” aspects of life that are inequitably distributed, and all are: looks, health, intelligence, place and decade of birth, family of birth.
But even within the realm of artistic talent, the issue examined here has nothing to do with absolute level of talent. Shakespeare himself is on record, in Sonnet 29, as
Assuming we can take this as autobiographical, and written early in his career when there was a vogue for sonnet sequences, then Shakespeare is telling us he wished he was more like those who had better prospects, were better looking, had more friends and, amazingly, had greater talent. The man with greater scope could have been Christopher Marlowe, and the man with greater art Sir Philip Sydney. No doubt, as Borges says in one of his essays, “he died as unjustified as any.” But let’s hope Shakespeare learned later in his career to be content with the level of talent he was given. Let’s hope that he came to understand the lesson implicit in Genesis 4:3-7 and that, after accepting the limitations of his scope and art, and the limitations of the offerings he made with them, he experienced uplift.
David Curzon is a contributing editor of the Forward.