This past week, the Interfaith Alliance, of which I am a board member, asked congregations across the country to take a stand against hate crimes and the violence associated with them. The initiative was called "STOP the HATE," and in over 250 communities, vigils were held to reject the notion of physical violence, vandalism and hateful rhetoric against others and their property. I participated in such a vigil in the District, and I was surprised to learn the extent to which people consider themselves to be victims. The variety of participants, from faith communities and other groups, was remarkable.
I was unfortunate enough to follow on the program a young man from an indeterminate group who earnestly proclaimed that the death penalty was a hate crime, perpetrated in this country against men, women and children. His passion was uplifting, even if his logic and command of the facts left something to be desired. As we increase the number of actions defined as hate, we decrease the value of the currency.
Fortunately, the section of the Torah we read this week, the very beginning of the Torah itself, contains the record of the first hate crime and its consequences. It is the story of Cain and Abel, which means it is the story of how death was discovered and how murder came into the world.
I share with you the story, delicious for the issues it raises and the details it omits.
3] In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil; 4] and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD paid heed to Abel and his offering, 5] but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. 6] And the LORD said to Cain,
"Why are you distressed,
And why is your face fallen?
7] Surely, if you do right,
There is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin crouches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master."
8] Cain said to his brother Abel ... and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him. 9] The LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" And he said, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?" 10] Then He said, "What have you done? Hark, your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground! 11] Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. 12] If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth."
13] Cain said to the LORD, "My punishment is too great to bear! 14] Since You have banished me this day from the soil, and I must avoid Your presence and become a restless wanderer on earth, anyone who meets me may kill me!" 15] The LORD said to him, "I promise, if anyone kills Cain, sevenfold vengeance shall be taken on him." And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who met him should kill him. 16] Cain left the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
The midrash says that Abel first subdued Cain and was about to kill him, when Cain said, "Listen, there are only two of us in the whole world. If you kill me, who are you going to tell Mom and Dad did it?" Abel relented, and Cain jumped up and knocked him out. But not knowing how to actually kill someone, he beat about Abel's arms and legs, until he finally figured out to cut his throat. Suddenly aware of his own mistake, he took off in a futile attempt to avoid discovery.
It's a great midrash, but it's bad history. Cain and Abel could not have known what they could not have known. Nobody had ever died before, and certainly, nobody had ever committed murder. The closest anyone had come to death was - well, Abel's sacrifices of sheep to God.
But hatred they knew. Hatred came into the world already in their parents' youth, when God set an eternal enmity, a constant antagonism between the serpent and the woman, throughout the generations. Hatred is a very attractive emotion because it is tremendously empowering. It allows someone to strike at a point of vulnerability - like the heel of a woman - or to exercise power for the sake of power - like stepping on the head of a serpent.
And it was hatred which impelled Cain to attack Abel. Cain was disappointed at the favor shown to his brother by God, a favor he felt he deserved himself. The Torah is vague about the nature of the difference between the two brothers' offerings. Commentators have parsed each phrase of the story, looking for the difference, but I think they miss the point. The kind of hatred borne of jealousy and insecurity which overwhelmed Cain is without rational cause. It is a sickness which invades the bones of the perpetrator who will use any excuse to express his own pain and frustration.
And that's the difference between a hate crime and an act of violence. There is hatred which is appropriate - hatred of sin, hatred of injustice and even hatred of those who persist in evil. That's in the Torah. There is violence which is appropriate, especially where life and limb is endangered or, in spite of what the earnest young man proclaimed, a person forfeits his right to lay claim to the protection of his life by virtue of wantonly taking another's. That, too, is in the Torah. But violence which is perpetrated out of the malaise of the soul which demands that others suffer for another's troubled spirit or warped mind - that's a hate crime. And that's what Cain committed against Abel.
We, of course, must do everything we can to prevent the success of hate crimes. And that includes standing firmly in opposition to those who would spread the disease of irrational hatred among the naive and impressionable. It also includes standing in solidarity with the victims of hate crimes, even when it makes us uncomfortable, as it does for some of us when the victim is gay, when the victim is an Arab, even when the victim is someone who might seek to do us harm.
But the real work of preventing hate crimes must come from within, and is not a matter of finger-pointing at others. The real way to stop the hatred is to continue the good work on our souls we initiated on Yom Kippur and should persist in following each day of the year. Because only by purging our souls of the sickness can we be certain that even one person will not commit a hate crime against another.
You know, the most famous line in the story of Cain and Abel is Cain's question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Reading that question as we do from the vantage point of experience, we know the answer is self-evident. It has become the cornerstone of a philosophy of the pursuit of justice and relief for the oppressed by Jews and non-Jews alike. But as I said, it is wrong to assume that Cain could know what he could not know. I think that question was asked not only in complete innocence, but as a cry of penitence.
I could not be my brother's keeper, cried Cain, because I could not even keep myself. Seeing the consequences of his rage, Cain goes through life unforgiven - not just by God and not just by humanity, but by himself.
Don't let me talk you out of being your brother's keeper and your sister's keeper. But please let me talk you out of thinking that the reasons they need to be kept is always because of the other guy. The other guy's faults always seem larger than your own, and the work the other guy has to do seems so much greater than that which awaits your efforts. But you know differently in your heart of hearts. Stop the hate.