It was only the second generation of mankind, and already murder was introduced into the world. In the aftermath of a stunning act of fratricide, Kaayin is condemned to wander the earth in isolation (Na v’Nad: Na to wander and Nad to be isolated, shunned. See Rav Hirsch on Braishis 4:12).
But the Torah is terse in its description of the aftermath, and questions arise.
Kaayin responds by saying “great is my sin to bear.” Does that mean “I can’t bear the punishment You have decreed on me?” Or does it mean “I have committed a heinous sin, an unbearable sin.”
Having been told in pasuk 12 that Kaayin has been condemned to the twofold punishment of Na and Nad, of wandering the earth and being friendless, in pasuk 16 we read “And Kaayin went from the presence of the Hashem and dwelt in the land, Nod.” How could Kaayin, condemned to wander, now dwell in a specific place? And what does Nod mean here? Is it the name of a place? We never hear that name before or after this. Or, does Nod mean “isolated” as in Na v’Nad, that Kaayin dwelled in isolation. Nonetheless, it says v’yaishev, he dwelt, he didn’t wander. What changed?
The Zohar haKadosh fills in the details of Kaayin’s conversation with Hashem after Kaayin killed his brother Hevel.
“And Kaayin went out from before Hashem and he dwelt in the land Nod, etc.” Because Kaayin said “great is my sin to bear,” [meaning: I committed a grievous sin. This was a vidui, a confession, the quintessential act of teshuva according to the Rambam] Hashem forgave him half of his punishment. Originally, Hashem was gozer on him Na v’Nad, but now only the punishment of Nad remained. This is why the pasuk (4:16) says, “And Kaayin went from the presence of the Hashem and dwelt in the land, Nod,” that is to say that when he left Hashem’s presence it was to dwell isolated in the land, Nod, but not to wander, Na.
And they [Chazal] also said (in Braishis Rabbah 22:13 with minor variations): when Kaayin went from before Hashem he met Adam.
Adam said to Kaayin, “my son, what happened with your judgment?”
Kaayin said to him, “Father, I have already been informed that Hashem forgave me, leaving only the punishment of Nod.”
Adam said to him, “How did you earn that?”
Kaayin said to him, “because I did teshuva and confessed before Hashem.”
Adam said, “So great and strong is the power of teshuva and I didn’t know!” He began to praise his Master and give thanks to him [or, to confess before Him]. He began by saying, Mizmor shir l’yom haShabbos, tov l’hodos l’Hashem. (Tehilim 92:1) He meant, “it is good to praise and confess [l’hisvados] to Hakodosh Baruch Hu.”
There is some controversy as to the sincerity of Kaayin’s teshuva. The aforementioned Midrash posits that he was insincere.
The Midrash questions the meaning of “And Kaayin went out from the presence of Hashem.” Since Hashem is everywhere, how could Kaayin have gone out from Hashem’s presence?
Rabi Aibu said it means that he threw the words behind him and went out like one would deceive the Almighty. Rabi Berekaih said in the name of Rabi Eleazar, he went forth like one who shows the cloven hoof, like one who deceives his Creator.
The Yafei Toar explains that he was like a chazir that extends its cloven hoof as if to say, “look at me, I’m kosher” when it isn’t because it doesn’t chew its cud. Similarly, Kaayin appeared righteous and humble but it was a sham.
In stark contrast, HaKsav v’Hakabalah empathetically maintains that Kaayin’s teshuva was sincere.
As I understand the text, Kaayin’s confession was complete and whole hearted. Kaayin saw the enormity of his sin, and he said to Hashem, “My trespass and my sin are very heinous in that I shed the blood of my brother. It is too great to tolerate and forgive. Righteously and justly have you sentenced me to be Na v’Nad in the world, and the shame of my disgusting actions have covered my face, such that I am hidden from the Light of your Face. I don’t feel worthy to ask for forgiveness and atonement. I agree with the veracity of your judgment and I take upon myself wholeheartedly to be Na v’Nad in the world.
HaKsav v’Hakabalah bases his understanding on the word hain in the expression said by Kaayin, hain gairashti, often translated as “behold, you have banished me.” HaKsav v’Hakabalah takes it to mean “justly you have banished me,” as in Braishis 30:34, “hain, yes, I agree.”
Rav Yaakov Elimelech Panett,Z”L H”yD, also sees Kaayin’s teshuva as sincere. In his son’s sefer Zichron Yaakov, he suggests that Kaayin was punished with golus (Na) because his sin came to be considered shogaig, as if it had been inadvertent , rather than maizid, deliberate. The punishment for deliberate murder is death, whereas the punishment for inadvertent murder (in certain cases) is golus, banishment.
Rav Yaakov reminds us that the gemara in Yoma 86b teaches that when a person does teshuva out of fear, his deliberate sins are reduced to the level of inadvertent sins. Kaayin’s teshuva was sincere but was motivated by fear of punishment. As a result, his deliberate act of murder was reduced to an inadvertent act, and he was accordingly punished with banishment.
But I think one question remains, and I couldn’t find anyone who addresses it.
Adam said, “So great and strong is the power of teshuva and I didn’t know!”
If Adam didn’t know there was such a thing as teshuva, how did Kaayin know?
I think the answer is hinted at in Elie Wiesel’s Messengers of G-d. He alludes to the fact that there was something uniquely tragic about Adam and Chava. Unlike anyone after them, they never had a childhood.
I think it is during childhood that we learn the concepts of teshuva and forgiveness. Kaayin, like every other child, made mistakes, and he saw that life went on. He could admit to his mistakes and be forgiven. Adam and Chava didn’t have that experience.
As parents, you have the opportunity to teach your child that being truthful and willing to admit error does not bring criticism and punishment. It brings compassion and forgiveness, and an opportunity to do better.
As Hashem’s children, that is what we seek from Hashem. May our teshuvah be teshuvah ma’ahavah, and may our failings turn into merit.
Note: The Zohar quote is taken from Zohar Hanigla in Chumash Habahir, published by Nisiv Habracha.