Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil, and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell.”
Why did God favor Abel and his offering? The Torah doesn’t tell us. In any case, Cain was upset and angry. But rather than directing his anger toward God, he turned against his brother. “Cain spoke to his brother Abel…and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.”
The Torah says, “Cain spoke to his brother Abel.” What did he say to him? Given what follows, they must have had an argument. Midrash Bereshit Rabbah offers suggestions:
One is that the brothers agreed to divide the world between them — one would take all the real estate, the other all the movable property. They looked at each other — the one who owned all the movable property saw that his brother was wearing clothes and demanded that he strip and hand them over. The other brother said, “The ground you are standing on is mine — I want you off it, so fly.” And Cain set upon his brother….
Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi, “Both took land and both took movable property. What they were fighting about was whose territory the Temple would be built in.” And Cain set upon his brother….”
Yehuda bar Ami said they were fighting about sex. In order to provide for the continuation of the human race, each of Adam and Eve’s sons was born with a twin sister intended as his wife. However, Abel was born with two sisters. Cain claimed the extra woman because he was first-born. Abel said he was entitled to her because she was born with him. And Cain set upon his brother….
This midrash portrays Cain and Abel as equally at fault, each one begrudging what his brother had. But ultimately it is Cain who is so overcome with envy that he commits murder.
They should have known just how poisonous envy can be. In describing the fourth day of creation, the Torah says, “God made the two great lights, the great light to rule the day and the small light to rule the night and the stars.” The verse first calls the sun and the moon the two great lights and then calls them the great light and the small light. How can both be true?
The gemara in Hullin explains it this way: After God made the two great lights — the sun and the moon — of equal size, the moon dared to say to the Holy One, “Master of the universe, is it possible for two kings to share one crown?” The Holy One answered, “Go, then, and make yourself smaller.”
When Cain saw that his brother had been more successful than he had been, that his offering received a better reception, he became angry, resentful, and envious. He blamed Abel for his shortcomings.
In an article published a few years ago in The Los Angeles Times, psychologist Steve Brody cited a 1995 study that looked at Olympic medal winners and rated them by how happy they appeared. He wrote: “Who do you think was happier: the silver or the bronze winners? The answer may surprise you. It was the bronze winners, even though they had performed worse than the silver. Why? Because the silvers compared themselves up: ‘If only a second faster, I’d be the best in the world. Now here I am, a loser.’ The bronze compared themselves down, to the rest of the field. They were thrilled just to be up on the podium.”
Envy is poison. When you see yourself and your accomplishments only in relation to others, it is inevitable that — like Cain — you will wind up bitter, angry, and depressed. After all, no matter how much you have, there will be someone else who has more. No matter how smart you are, there will be someone smarter. No matter how beautiful you are, there will be someone more beautiful. No matter how talented you are, there will be someone more talented.
Perhaps Ben Zoma said it best in Pirkei Avot: Who is rich? The one who is content with his portion.