Adam and Eve had children, Kayin and Hevel; Kayin became a farmer and Hevel a shepherd. They each brought offerings to God, Kayin from his crops and Hevel from his flock. God accepted Hevels offering but not Kayin’s. After God warned Kayin that “sin crouches at the door,” the two brothers struggle in the field and Kayin kills Hevel. God punishes Kayin. Then, the Bible tells us about the genealogies of Kayin’s descendants.
With the story of Kayin and Hevel we have the first instances of professions (a farmer and a shepherd), sacrifice (a desire to please God), rivalry, jealousy, inclination to sin, murder, lying about guilt, and ultimately taking responsibility. These are all parts of human nature, and their appearance within the first family in the history of the world is evidence of that fact.
We often translate the term derekh eretz as having to do with being a good person and doing things with due respect to others. In that sense, we return to the Netziv’s point in our first post: derekh eretz kadma latorah, “Being a metsch, respectful to others, precedes Torah,” means that before one accepts the mitzvot and what the Torah has to offer, one must first be a decent human being. That’s what we learn from our forefathers, who lived before God gave the Torah, and therefore represent the derekh eretz which came before it. However, the very literal translation of the statement comes forth in our chapter: derekh eretz literally means “the way of the world.” Before the Torah, came the way of the world. Before the rule of law, everything was governed by human nature.
The story of Kayin and Hevel teaches us that these things – jealousy, rivalry, and lying, are all indeed part of human nature. So is having a profession and desiring to please God. While human nature contains both positive and negative qualities, the results of rule by human nature can be catastrophic. Ultimately, that’s the purpose of this story’s being recorded in the Bible. Kayin and Hevel were good people: they worked hard for a living and they wanted to please God. They had God, but they did not have Torah. They did not have rules, neither from God nor from society. Derekh eretz may have come before the Torah, but ultimately what is necessary is both. As B’nei Akiva’s motto goes, Torah with Derekh Eretz.
Rabbi Roy Feldman