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Cain Builds a City (Bereshit)

There’s a form of “familiarity bias” that we run into every time we begin the Torah anew. From the creation of the world to the snake’s deception of Adam and Chava to Kayin’s murder of Hevel, many of the Bible’s most famous and most foundational stories are concentrated in its opening chapters. So when we study Parshat Bereshit, write about it, or talk about it at our Shabbat tables, these are invariably the stories that we focus upon.

But there’s a whole other section of our Parshah which also deserves to be studied. And in fact, we don’t need to venture any farther than a single verse—the very first verse in the Parshah’s “second half”—to stumble upon something unexpectedly profound:

Kayin knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Chanoch [חֲנוֹךְ]. And Kayin was the builder of a city, and named it after his son Chanoch (Gen. 4:17).

With this tidbit of information about the city that Kayin built, the Torah kicks off approximately two whole chapters filled with details of prehistoric geography and genealogy. It’s not a particularly grabbing piece of trivia. But, the innovation it records represents one of the most radical breakthroughs in the development of civilization. We are taking here about the world’s first city—the advent of urbanization. And urbanization represents a veritable turning point in human history because it was what allowed our ancestors to gather together in one spot for the first time. In its wake, humans were suddenly able to produce cultures and technologies that wouldn’t need to be constantly uprooted and relocated each time there was a change in the weather or the food supply. Cities, in other words, were what freed us from the life of the nomad and empowered us to create permanent communities.

And so if you think about it, the fact that the Torah attributes the credit for this achievement to Kayin, of all people, is truly fascinating. Recall, after all, what the Torah had told us about Kayin just a few verses before he founds his city:

The Lord said [to Kayin], “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth. Kayin said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” And the Lord said to him, “Therefore, anyone who kills Kayin will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Kayin so that no one who found him could kill him. So Kayin went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod [=”Wanderings”], east of Eden (Gen. 4:10-16).

downloadAs punishment for taking the life of his brother, Hevel, Kayin was cursed to a life of solitary wandering. Wherever he went, the locals, upon learning of his presence, sought to kill him, and the earth turned barren on his account. Imagine what it must have been like for Kayin to build a city under these circumstances! One morning he’d arrive on site, clear a few acres—and suddenly, he’d find himself forced to flee. Later he’d return, chop down several beams—and then he’d have to flee again. So he’d return a third time, erect a framework—and flee soon after; return again, assemble a couple of walls—only to flee once more. In this manner, through a frustratingly futile series of fits and starts, would Kayin have had to struggle, over the course of decades, to cobble together his piecemeal city. Indeed, Ramban observes (Gen. 4:17), it is for this reason precisely that the Torah calls Kayin “the builder of a city [בנה עיר]”—implying an ongoing enterprise—rather than simply stating “he built a city [ויבן עיר],” as it does in other instances.

And for whom, exactly, was all this toil? Kayin himself would never be able to settle in his city; his curse precluded the possibility. Perhaps that is why, unlike many other city-builders in the Bible, Kayin does not name his city after himself. Instead, he names it after his son, Chanoch—a child whose very name means “dedication.” Hashem had banned Kayin’s participation in community because it was Kayin who introduced the world to the sort of behavior that destroys communities. So Kayin dedicated the rest of his life to building a city where community could thrive stronger than it ever had. He built this city, and he dedicated it to a future in which he was not welcome to take part but in whose founding he found a way to re-dedicate his own legacy.

And, most poignantly, it was in the language of that legacy which Hashem, much later in His Torah, would go on to legislate how His children should conduct themselves if ever again they found themselves on the verge of conflict:

When you go out to war… the officers shall speak to the people, saying: “What man is there who has built [בָּנָה] a new house and has not yet dedicated it [חֲנָכוֹ—chanocho]? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man dedicate it [יַחְנְכֶנּוּ]” (Deut. 20:1-5).

At the heart of the Jewish law of war lies the conviction that no man should have to give his life before he has had the chance to experience the joy of “Chanoch:” the joy of settling down, and sowing roots, and surrounding oneself in the company of one’s loved ones. Neither Hevel nor Kayin was able to experience that joy. But Kayin, through a selfless act of repentant rebuilding, forged a way for his son Chanoch to choose the path Kayin wished he would have. And Hashem, in turn, invites us to choose that path as well: the path off of the field of battle, and back to our homes, where we can dedicate ourselves to nurturing the communities of family, city, nation and humanity.

Shabbat shalom!

Thoughts? Questions? Insights? Please feel free to share in the comments section below. Your feedback is greatly appreciated!


  1. Rafi Cashman says:

    Beautiful connection to Devarim!

  2. Mike Shriqui says:

    What a beautiful Dvar Torah Alex. We never truly know how things will turn out or how an extreme negative can lead to a long-lasting positive. It reminds us not to give up on people or situations. Thanks very much for your efforts. Shabbat Shalom to you and to Blima.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Yeshar Koach, Alex! Thank you again for sharing your beautiful words of Torah with us!

  4. joesbar.mitzvah@yahoo.com says:

    Welcome back Alex. I’m sorry I didn’t get to print the dvar torah for shabbos but ill try to do it this week.Gut voch Yosef

  5. Sam Larson says:

    Awesome stuff Alex! By the way, I thought you’d be pleased to hear that the Malbim explains the inyan about kayin building a city in almost the exact same way! Also, remembering back to your post last year about the tree of life, the Malbim also seems to say along the same lines, that before the original intention was for them to eat from the tree fo life.. etc.

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