Sukkot & Shmini Atzeret & Simchat Torah

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Sukkot, Cain & Abel

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England, shares a fundamental  insight in Chapter 15 of his book Not In God’s Name. We are all aware of the biblical account of God accepting Abel’s offering and not Cain’s, and of Cain, subsequently, murdering Abel in cold blood. What is not so obvious are the motivations. Why does God not accept Cain’s offering? Why does Cain respond by murdering his brother? Rabbi Sacks explains that the key to unfolding this mystery lies in their given names.

In Hebrew, Abel (Hevel) alludes to the breath. Abel lives with the understanding that humankind is merely breath. In Talmudic times, breath was used to distinguish between life and death. Abel understands that God is the master and owner of the entire universe. Human existence is a fragile thing, a gift from God to be treasured as such. Cain, on the other hand, comes from the Hebrew word ‘Koneh‘, which means to acquire ownership. Cain represents the idea of the biblical expression: “My strength and the power of my hands have made me this fortune.” In other words, Cain feels that his power emanates from what he owns. His sacrifice to God is fundamentally self-serving, a way of bribing God, as was prevalent with pagan idolaters. In the words of Rabbi Sacks: “…the fundamental conflict within the human condition: the struggle between the will to power and the will to life.” Cain murders Abel in the pursuit of power, an attempt to thwart off the humble approach that states that, although human beings may possess things, God is the true owner of all possessions.

Friends, the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur culminate in Sukkot. We leave our permanent homes, the very places which give us a sense of ownership, security, and power, and enter the fragile abode of the Sukkah. We declare (as Abel/Hevel did) that we are merely custodians of God’s benevolence in this world. We are fundamentally merely  ‘breath’ and, therefore, have no desire to exercise power over others. We replace our ego demons that thirst for power and never seem to be entirely satisfied, with the simple joy of thanks and appreciation for every new breath of life.