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War Damage

Parshat Naso

Who fought the first religious war? The answer, according to Genesis, is Cain and Abel: "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 . . . And the Lord said: 'Why has your face fallen . . . Surely, if you do right, there is uplift . . .' And when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother and killed him. Then [the • Lord] said: 'You shall be cursed.'"

The midrash, in Breshit Rabba, brings this first war into the context of Jewish history by connecting it to the Temple. What were Cain and Abel actually fighting over? Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin says in the name of Rabbi Levi: "Over whose land the Temple would be built on. How do we know this? For it says, 'And when they were in the field,' and field [in the Bible] refers to the Temple, as it says, 'And Zion will be plowed under like a field.'"

In the Torah itself, the original trauma of the first murder seems, after having been duly described in the narrative, to disappear without a trace. But if we remain open to the hint provided by Rabbi Isaac Luria, the renowned 16th-century kabbalist, we may discover a response to the story at the center of the Torah —literally. Rabbi Luria teaches that the relationship between Aaron and Moses, the brothers who led the children of Israel out of Egypt, is a tikkun — a repair —of the damage to reality caused by Abel's murder.

With this in mind, look at the passage that, if you count the verses, comes in the exact middle of the Torah — Leviticus 8:8. It describes the moment when Moses placed the jeweled breastplate of the high priest on Aaron's chest, initiating his brother into his priestly role. That action is symbolic of the mutual love and acceptance of each other's role that defined the brothers' relationship. Rashi connects this passage with Exodus 4:14, which describes Aaron coming to greet Moses "with joy in his heart" — the opposite of Cain's jealousy — after having learned of his younger brother's election by God as Israel's redeemer from Egypt. "From this joy," the midrash says, "Aaron merited the bejeweled breastplate that is placed over his heart," and, one might add, the priesthood itself.

The charge — and the method — of repairing the damage rendered by Cain is passed on to Aaron's children. In Naso, the priests are commanded to bless the children of Israel. This must be done ''with love," the Talmud dictates in Tractate Sotah — the blessing must come from the heart. In addition, the Talmud says in the same tractate, any priest who has ever killed a man, even by accident, may not bless the people.

The text of the blessing in Numbers 6:22-27, when examined closely, alludes to the major movements in the Cain and Abel narrative, though in reverse order, for the priests must begin the ''repair" from the lowest point the brothers reached. The first of the blessings, "The Lord bless you and keep you," is, on the simple level, a "repair" of the human vulner-ability of which Abel is archetype. But it also counters Cain's infamous dismissal of responsibility, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

Cain's feeling of humiliation — "His face fell," which the 13th century Tikkunei Zohar explains as a sudden reduction of the divine light that should radiate from the human face, is healed with the blessing, "The Lord make His face shine upon you." And the final blessing, "The Lord lift up His countenance to you and grant you peace," refers both to what God had promised Cain if he would overcome his anger and sadness — "there will be uplift" — and to what Cain had desired in the first place, that God turn to him and acknowledge his sacrifice.

From the blessings, we see that all of us need a "repair" — not only of the vulnerability that Abel's murder implies about men, but of the humiliation and rejection that Cain felt, for both these possibilities exist in all of us. And although God cursed Cain, the healing must come through a blessing delivered by our fellow man. Such is the implication of the verses that preface and follow the blessing: Only after the commandment is fulfilled to "place My name upon the children of Israel," can God say, "and I will bless them."

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