Outside the Garden of Commons

Over the last 10 years I have found myself engrossed in ongoing conversations as to how Torah learning for your adults might look in the 21st century. First in Yeshivah, then on campus, and now working with camps. A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure to participate in another one of these conversations at the Third Space Conference. We were joined by Gary Rosenblatt so you can learn more about it in this week’s Jewish Week.  In short the conversation tried to reframe Torah learning in the context of regaining the commons.

While there I learned an interesting learning from Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt who will be working for Hillel Intergalactic as the Director of Campus Initiatives. The text touched on the concept of Cain’s punishment being that he would have to wander the world. But being in the larger context of discussing this reestablishing the Jewish access point to the commons I started to rethink the story of the Cain and Abel.

There we read,

2She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. 3In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; 4and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, 5but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. 6And the Lord said to Cain,

“Why are you distressed,And why is your face fallen?

7Surely, 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.”

8Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him. 9The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” 10Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! 11Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” (Genesis 4:2-10)

I used to understand that it was just an issue of sibling rivalry or I read into the fact that Abel brought the best while Cain just brought what ever her had from the field. Cain has anger management issues and that is all. But if you look at this story through the Rabbinic lens the story changes. In the Gemara in Sanhedrin we learn that a shepherd was incapable of bearing witness because of his habit of encroaching upon other persons’ pastures (Sanhedrin 25a). The assumption is that the shepherd does not know how to treat the commons. Cain is not just someone who wants to defend the pasture (aka his crops) out of personal interest, Cain is a misguided defender of the commons. The problem is without public discourse ( read here the commons itself) Cain’s response in defense of the commons is murder. Cain is a vigilante and a true sinner, but in this context we have to recognize the role that Able had in compromising the commons.

This story underscores the basic need for us to find a way to find a way to restore civility and seek out a common place for serious discussion and disagreement. As we have learned, “Sin couches at the door”. Horrible things will happen in our personal spaces when we all do not find ways to preserve that Third Place. The punishment of wandering makes sense, we will be forced to deal with the dangers of the world without a community.

1 Response to “Outside the Garden of Commons”


  1. 1 JTW July 19, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Sounds like a great conference.
    Thanks for sharing:) and using the Tagged Tanakh to illustrate your point!


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