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Rejection's Value


Shabbat Bereshit Sermon 5778 | October 14, 2017

We begin again our people’s sacred book. This is what Torah is about. Torah is about us, and our lives. Torah points us to awareness of God as it urges us to find meaning, purpose, beauty, and responsibility in life.

The Torah’s story of humanity begins as a reflection of human instinct and emotion. Our moods and passions may be the most complex part of being human. Our reactions and moods vary, often surprise us, and are not always ours to control.

The first portrayals of human personality in Torah reflect universal human truths. Adam is lonely. Seeking a companion, Adam represents our social desire. We crave being together with others. Eve is curious. Her appetite presents our drive to explore and discover. Cain is jealous of his brother Abel. He has trouble co-existing in relationship with someone else. Abel’s shorter life span demonstrates gratitude. Among our finest and healthiest traits.

When we meet Cain, he is a farmer. Abel, his brother whom we also meet, is a shepherd. According to some scholars, these brothers represent a tension between two original human settings. One, Abel, lives a nomadic existence. The other, Cain, is a settler. Both make necessary contributions to culture and economy. Cain is a “tiller of the soil,” just like his father. Abel raises livestock, “a keeper of sheep,” branching out from the family’s home.

“In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Eternal God from the fruit of the soil; and Abel for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock.”

I’m curious. What is the purpose of Cain and Abel’s offering? Are they worshipping God? Is prayer instinctive to our nature? Why do people, including many of us, give something of ourselves or our possessions as an expression of caring, thanks, or praise? What do we, and Cain and Abel, seek? What internal feelings or personal sensations motivate us?

Jealousy is one, according to the Midrash. Adam, Cain and Abel’s father, sees the brothers’ rivalry and sends them to “pacify their Creator by offering to God from their strivings.” In part, prayer is expression of our emotions. A release of all we carry and feel within.

Submerged in this Torah text we find a deeper question. Notice what occurs. “The Eternal paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering God paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell.” The question is obvious and uncomfortable. Why was Cain’s offering rejected?

The deeper question to learn from asks about that rejection. Why is it not okay to be rejected sometimes? We can ask a few more questions. Why does Cain assume that what he offered had to be acceptable to God? Why do any of us assume that something we do, or something we produce, must be accepted by others? Why can’t we be rejected?

Candidates seek our votes. Some of them are rejected in every election. Different choices, colors or flavors are presented to us all of the time. We like some of them. We reject others. Employers interview numerous candidates for a position. Most of them are rejected in favor of the person selected.
The Latin term for our human species is homosapien. The root of meaning is judicious and discerning. Of course, we accept and reject according to our preferences. By definition, it’s human nature. What needs to engage us are the criteria, good or bad, by which we make those decisions.

Again, from the Midrash we gain one insight. Abel’s offering reflected his humility. “Who am I to draw near to God?” the rabbis imagine him wondering. Cain, on the other hand, assumed everything he did every time he did it was worthy of acceptance. Which just isn’t true.

Rejection is a necessary, even a valuable, experience in our lives. Not all of the time, of course. No teenager finds pleasure in being told “no” when asking someone out on a date. Being accepted is crucial to forming our identities and supporting our personal feelings of self-worth. Even so, we ought to be mature enough and wise enough to understand the value in rejection.

Over the coming months students will be accepted or rejected by schools or programs they hope to attend. Their applications will be rejected based on statistics, demographics, and very selective, subjective, criteria. True, not everyone is qualified or a good fit for every slot. But, it is never personal. No admissions officer or evaluation committee actually knows the students they evaluate.

Life’s most enduring lessons challenge us. They don’t always make us happy. We learn from them to evaluate what we are doing. If we like what we are presenting, we gain confidence to continue. We look for the right place to offer what we can, to be who we are. How many members of the baseball teams currently in the playoffs were released by other teams only to find themselves now playing to get to the World Series?

We do not have to like, agree with, or accept everything people bring to us. Other individuals are entitled to our respect, not our automatic acquiescence. Think about your own opinions. You can’t agree with everybody. Unless you simply don’t care enough to have a view of your own. I agree and disagree with many good friends on this issue or that. I never feel dejected when a friend rejects my point of view. Isn’t it enough that my perspective was considered at all?

I reject the idea that we cannot balance gun ownership and gun safety. I reject the view that suggests there is nothing we can do as a society to keep people safe from those who should not have easy access to weapons.

I reject the behaviors of those who disrespect another person’s dignity, body, or opportunity. I reject efforts to confuse people by denying what is true or promoting what is not.
In Torah God asks Cain, “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely if you do right there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin couches at the door.” Torah rejects the false choice between doing what is expedient or doing what is right.

Cain murdered his brother Abel because he didn’t understand the possibilities present in God’s rejection of his offering. We can discover this potential. Not all expressions are equal even though all people are. Our efforts bring value even when the results of our efforts fall short.

We’ve begun reading our sacred text again for a New Year. Striving to help us be aware of God, Torah urges us to find meaning, purpose, and responsibility in life. Let’s reject the notion that life is void of meaning. Torah is about us, and the purpose of our lives.

© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784