The narrative of Cain and Abel (Kayin and Hevel) presents numerous difficulties. Why did they choose their respective professions? Why was only Hevel’s sacrifice accepted? Why does G-d challenge Kayin’s justifiable anger? Why does Kayin murder his brother, and why does he lament his punishment of being forced to wander? He should have been executed for murder!
Kayin, the farmer, saw that the ground was the source of all life. His name, which means “acquisition”, indicates that he was rooted in materialism. Hevel, as a shepherd, pursued the less material objectives of leadership, honor and power, as the shepherd is the leader of his flocks. The word “hevel” which connotes the ethereal is an indication of his lack of concern for materialism. Kayin, the firstborn, chose farming, since plant life precedes animal life, just as acquisitions precede honor. Hevel, on the other hand, viewed shepherding as a higher and more honorable profession, as evidenced later by the Patriarchs.
Each brought a sacrifice in order to substantiate his claim to superiority, not in order to give thanks to G-d. Kayin felt that farming was most important since it was the foundation of man’s physical existence, providing food, clothing and shelter. He felt that shepherding was without substance and required little effort. Hevel, however, felt that it was much more honorable to deal with animals, whereas Kayin was dealing with the ground which had been cursed to produce thorns and thistles. He brought his offering from the choicest of his flocks to show the absence of this curse.
G-d’s acceptance of Hevel’s offering was an indication that his life was on a higher plane. His pursuit of honor actually brought him to a level which shielded him from other negative characteristics. He was in control of his occupation while Kayin was enslaved to the ground and its material products. There is no honor in material possessions, and when one is not concerned with his own honor he is more likely to lapse into dishonesty and theft. Kayin was constantly involved with the demands of working the ground, while Hevel was free from the hazards of materialism and able to concentrate on higher contemplations.
Kayin was upset as he saw himself subservient and inferior to his younger brother. But G-d tells him that the actual problem is his failure to fulfill his own potential. G-d tells him that he does not have to be a slave to the material world, but that he can rise above it and conquer it. G-d also tells him that Hevel was not a paragon of perfection; he had a desire for power and fame. Kayin was afraid that Hevel having chosen a life of control over others would also exercise that control over Kayin and his descendants, even to the point of usurping his land. He felt that he had no choice but to kill Hevel to prevent this from happening. Kayin would then be left alone to do G-d’s work.
In terms of Kayin’s complaint that his punishment was more than he could bear, Abarbanel relates that he actually means just the opposite. He is actually referring to the fact that his transgression was so heinous that G-d cannot bear to forgive him, even though G-d’s power to forgive can overcome even the most grievous transgressions. Furthermore, when Kayin complained that someone was likely to kill him during his wanderings from place to place, he was actually expressing his desire to be killed because of the severity of his act of premeditated murder.