Although growing up my family was very religious attending Temple weekly and celebrating all the holidays, the two most well attended holidays in my family were secular holidays. The most popular by far, was Super Bowl Sunday. The second most attended holiday was Thanksgiving. These two holidays were actually very similar. They focused on the three F’s Football, Food and Family. It was very ritualistic. Specific types of food were served only on these occasions. .On Thanksgiving of course there would be the traditional ritual foods such as Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry, (my mouth is already starting to water).
In addition for Thanksgiving, my aunt would make these outrageously good shrimp toast and this salami (Hebrew National) dipped in a delicious mystery sauce. Just the thought of thoses bring back visceral memories. I have to say as I became older, I realized it is hard to be a vegetarian on Thanksgiving. After years and years of conditioning to eat certain foods, and in large quantities. It is hard to discipline oneself in the face of the onslaught of such epicurean delicacies. And when I raised the idea of Tofurkey for Thanksgiving. Let us just say, I was outvoted. Its kind of funny how my family only voted when they know they have the votes to win.
Family members would come from far and wide for Thanksgiving. Often it would be the only time of the year I would see many of them. And invariably there is always someone in the family that we have difficulty with. In my family I can think of one person who will remain nameless, who we call the most obnoxious man in the world. He was the type of person who would study all the answers of the trivial pursuit cards before we would play. Or he would boast ab out beating one of the 5 year old children in the house in 7 moves playing chess. The most obnoxious man in the world. There was the one time that someone who also shall remain nameless “accidently” dropped a hot cup of coffee on him and we still talk about that years later.
When family members get together we all fall into our familiar patterns we have had after a lifetime of conditioning. I think of myself. I have accomplished many things in my 54 years on this earth, having quite diverse experiences with quite diverse people. Yet when I gather with my family, I am still the baby of the family who couldn’t possibly know anything. And every year they still repeat the story of when I was a child and my siblings locked me in the doghouse rigged to hit me with a brick if I tried to escape. Retelling the story each year makes it my own story. When talking to my family I now credit this story as my impetus to my life long struggle for justice for those oppressed. Each year I would hear the retelling of this and other family stories and I admit that I would join in as well and it would bring up old family anxieties. In my teenage years there was some rebelliousness toward it, but as I grew older, I had to ask myself, what is the purpose of this ritual. Is there a purpose of this ritual, and how could I find purpose in this ritual.
Surprisingly to myself, I found the answer in the Bible. I found my answer in the story of Cain and Abel which you heard earlier. Often after reading the story, there is a quick moral conclusion that Cain’s jealousy, hatred and envy is evil, and he should have protected his brother. Yet there is so much more depth and complexity to this story just as there is depth and complexity in our lives. Not that I condone the action of Cain, but in some ways I think Cain gets a bad rap.
Imagine His family being exiled from God’s presence. , here he is, the first person ever to make an offering to God. It doesn’t say anyone asked him to. He just does. I sense he wants to find reconcilement for his family. He makes an offering of grapes and vegetables that were not acceptable to God. It is at this part of the story that first made the connection to Thanksgiving for me. Cain the Vegetarian trying to get some healthier food into everyone’s diet and being rejected. Abel then brought his offering of meat for God which in the story God approves of. Now this is the first of many biblical motif’s of God preferring the younger or youngest child in a family.
Something I always reminded my family about. But I am trying to imagine how Cain and Abel interacted after this event before Cain killed Abel. It appears that Abel is trying to one up Cain, as it is noted bringing the choicest of offering. I imagine knowing how siblings act towards each other Abel I imagine was prideful of God accepting his offering and not Cain’s. and I imagine he was boastful about it. We imagine Abel as an innocent in all of this, but we have no way of knowing that. We have no way of knowing if Abel did anything to provoke Cain. But my question is why did God choose Abel’s offering over Cain’s. Does God have some culpability in this murder?
Maybe this is just an older version of the Farmer vs. Cattlemen struggle that continued even through the 19th century in this country. Maybe it was an overarching story of why a people became a nomadic people and not farmers. But it was just in the previous chapter of the story that God had sent the family out of Eden, out of the Garden, to till the soil. And yet God rejects what was reaped from that tilling the soil. So I can again imagine Cain, saying to himself, this is what you told us to do, and now you reject what you asked of us to do. And God senses Cain’s dejection and anger. This was not a happy Thanksgiving Meal.
God says “Surely if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right Sin couches at the door. Its urge is toward you. Yet you can be its master” A very Buddhist message if you ask me. We all have passions, we all have ideas that we disagree with, we all have people who get under our skin, but the question is how do we react? Do we let our passions control us, or do we recognize our passions and do we control our passions. In a fit of rage, Cain kills Abel, or drops a cup of coffee on someone’s lap. God knew there was a danger, and warned Cain, but God did nothing to intercede to prevent the murder. And what of Adam and Eve. Where were they in this whole story. Why didn’t they do something to protect Abel.
I imagine that they were fearful to face God again. Or another way to put it, after struggling they were fearful to challenge the power structures they lived within. But perhaps if they had interceded, perhaps if they faced up to God and supported Cain, perhaps if they questioned the status quo, questioned what they were conditioned to believe, this would have never happened. That for me is one of the morals of the story. God does not intercede, only in so much as we intercede. We need to overcome our fears, and to break the conditioning we have had through our lives. To see our lives from our own perspective, not as someone’s brother or sister, or someone’s son, or someone’s parent, or someone’s servant, or to follow society’s expectations. But to determine how we want to be in the world. And as well to accept the consequences of our actions.
This story is trying to reconcile to people why bad things happen, sometimes for no good reason, and from things we cannot control. I think the name of Abel in and of itself points to this. In Hebrew the word is the same word as futility. Meaning, sometimes it doesn’t matter what we do, sometimes bad things will happen. But the second message of the story is also this, despite our mistakes, despite the seeming arbitrariness of life, we can and should control our own actions, and reactions. We can learn from our mistakes, we can transcend our environment, we can transcend our limitations and expand and be creative and build a life, build a city, build a world.
After Abel’s murder, God asks Cain if he knows where his brother is. Cain replies “I do not know, Am I my brothers keeper.” Now the assumption here is that Cain is lying. I don’t read it that way. I think this is Cain questioning the afterlife. We assume God is all knowing, so we assume God knows what Cain did. I see Cain as rebuking God. Saying God is his brothers keeper now after death. Also saying to God, if you knew this was in me, why didn’t you stop this? He is saying that he realizes God is not our keeper. God sends him out to be a ceaseless wanderer. Some translations have Cain responding, “My punishment is too great to bear” but I think the more appropriate translation is “My iniquity is too great to bear” I believe Cain realized that he too, just like God, he too should have been his brothers keeper, and that he had abandoned his role. In so doing he felt guilt and repentance and transformation. And in the same moment of clarity in the story I believe God was transformed as well.
God who did not protect Abel, agrees to protect Cain. God learns from God’s mistake. We can all learn from our mistakes. Cain who the story says is now and forever alienated from God. Think about overarching story, His family alienated from God, Cain tried to reconcile, only to be rejected and to then to reject God and to realize that he had to determine how he could live a moral life, not by leaving offerings but by using his passion, his life to create something meaningful. We can use our passion to create or to destroy. Ask yourself with each action you are taking, are you creating something or are your destroying something.
Cain the first humanist goes on to be the builder of great cities, the creator of the first civilization and the arts. There are some who believe the Mark of Cain is a symbol of sin, however, it is clear to me from the story that it is the mark of protection. Some would say it is the mark of intelligence which allows us to find our way in the wilderness, an awareness that allows us to tame and direct our passions. We have to make our own Garden, and we have the power to do so, we just have to choose to do so.
The picture on the cover of the order of service is a small portion of a painting in the Musee D’orsey in Paris entitled Cain by Fernand Cormon. It is a full wall length painting. When I saw it, I just stared at it for about 30 minutes. I was just mesmerized. I have a small print of it in my office if you are curious to see it. This painting caused quite a controversy when it was first displayed in 1880. The controversy was that it showed Cain and his family wandering in the wilderness as Palaeolithic cave people. This just shocked people. We of course like to imagine our Biblical Characters as modern day characters who we imagine could be like us, or at least like characters on a sitcom. I think of Cain as maybe the father in Everybody loves Raymond. I think it is harder for us to make meaning of this story if we have to imagine them as cave people. How could we relate to cave people. Well thinking about my family and Thanksgiving it actually becomes much easier to imagine them as cave people.
So if you are at a family thanksgiving, and you are feeling tense, look within. Be authentic to who you are, be comfortable with who you are and resist the need to change others. We don’t choose our family. Whether it be parents, or inlaws or cousins, or cousins twice removed, Let us be grateful for the time we have together and the opportunity that allows us to be together, let us control our passions, so everyone leaves in one piece doesn’t need their pants dry cleaned. I mean that mentally as well as physically. Let the retelling of your stories allow you to relook at your life from a longer/wider perspective so that you can better know yourself, so you are not defined by others whose experience of you and of life have been conditioned by their ancestral experiences. Continue to learn from your experiences. Note how you are now has been formed in some part by your family but also in some part by your active discernment on the choices you make how to live your life. Let us as well find mercy in our hearts. Let us find mercy for those that most pain us, for they have pain as well,. and maybe they can learn something from you and how you react or choose not to react to them. Let us as well find mercy for ourselves and go easy on our own expectations for the holiday season. And if Thanksgiving is still unhealthy, and you have to let go, let go. Its ok to let go of pain, its ok to let go anxiety, its ok to let go of someone elses vision of you, or even your own vision of yourself. It is ok to let go and move forward with a new creation, of how you want to be in the world. We are here to walk with you on that journey. You are not alone. May it be so.