The fratricidal episode between Kayin and Hevel in this weeks parsha is of necessity one of the most enigmatic in the Torah.
Why would G-d so blatantly as it were “play favorites” in reverse when Kayin was ostensibly the first one to invent the notion of sacrificing to G-d, and then seemingly not only not get credit for the effort, but rather chastised for his failure?
My mara a’asra Rabbi Allen Schwartz recently said that the root of Kayin’s avera was that he engaged in competition rather than cooperation. He might have had the original idea to serve G-d through sacrifice, but what kept him from sharing this idea with his brother? Maybe he thought that G-d would grant him some sort of agricultural advantage; give him another sister/wife; give him something that his brother wouldn’t get because G-d would "like him better" if he sacrificed and his brother didn’t.
My take is that Kayin "originated" another idea: trying to use spirituality to one up an ostensible competitor, and that was why G-d not only "gave him mussar" but also in mida-k’neged-mida mode favored Kayin’s competitor to his face. Kayin may never have even expected any response; in fact, one can imagine Kayin actually initially congratulating himself on just having the original idea and even chuckling to himself when his brother starts collecting sheep, thinking that not only is his idea better simply by virtue of its originality, but that his brother is wasting effort trying to outdo him….until the Fire comes down. It may have been G-d’s way of delineating between “mitoch shelo lishmah bah lishmah” and “hamasmilim bah sama demosa”: indicating where a spiritual competition might cease to be spiritual.
[There might be several degrees between, say, Kayin’s spiritual one-upmanship even just in contemplation and the notion that “hatzo'ek al chavero hu ne’enash techila”. But one can see how one might lead to the other.]
However, once he realized his efforts were not only rejected but that the rejection was compounded AND his “competitor” got all the credit while he was forced to watch, he became enraged.
[Whether or not Hevel also copied the competition idea is unclear; the posuk does say “And Hevel brought also”, so he may have engaged in competition; however, he also might have been spurred by watching his brother’s effort without actually thinking along the lines that Kayin did, having no reason to assume that G-d would favor him and not Kayin’s offering.]
So why would the Torah open with such an enigmatic lesson that ostensibly goes so far as from what it initially appears to be saying?
The easy answers are a] that the Torah does this all the time and b] it does this precisely because it wants its learners to delve beyond the surface so that it almost tricks and/or forces its adherents to be “[me]haf[e]ch bah, [me]haf[e]ch bah” to get to the ultimate point, because if one stops too far short, the lesson drawn may be incomplete at best, and at times possibly incorrect [maybe even repeating Kayin's mistake, in a way].
Beyond all that, the Torah’s other lesson here to both Kayin and us might be that spiritual progression and striving isn’t linear, and also at times doesn’t have a guarantee of there not being a loss involved in the effort even if there is no palpable gain [G-d’s reference to a “pesach chatas”, again, implying that Kayin may have actually committed a sin with his sacrificial effort]. The CEO’s and financial captains who helped sink the economy in 2008 and walked away with golden parachutes might have learned a thing or two from Kayin, but it certainly wasn’t a spiritual lesson.
Counterintuitively, however, it also belies the notion that "Biblical morality" as practiced by certain other faith strains that use Biblical texts as foundations are actually necessarily salient just because they call it that. We have something they don’t [“im yomru lecha yesh Torah bagoyim al ta’amin”] and often we fall into the trap of thinking that we need to make alliances out of the necessity to maintain “Biblical morality” [especially in the US] because the alternative has to be worse. I’ve written elsewhere that this is mistaken thinking, and I would go further here: this is one area where “spiritual competition” may actually be warranted. We certainly didn’t start it [viz. the midrashim about G-d "shopping" the Torah to everyone else and coming to us last, as well as most of the history of early Christianity], and the fact that G-d “turned to Hevel’s offering” indicates that sometimes one side actually does get the advantage granted. It’s no longer as if we have ideas we aren’t sharing [which in the information age is well-nigh impossible]. Ain chadash; all the ideas are out there. We can and we should be specific about what’s ours and not conflate them with what might no longer be."