Blog: October 2006

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Lemech (B'reishit)

Lemech's poem in this week's parsha seems odd and out of place. After we get Lemech's genealogy, we get the following passage:

And Lamekh said to Adah and Tzilah, his wives:
Hear my voice, wives of Lamekh; hearken unto my speech.
For I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt.
If Kayin shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lemekh seventy-sevenfold.

What is Lemech talking about? According to the midrash, Lemech was blind and was led about by his son, Tuval-Kayin. (Tuval-Kayin is the son who developed metal instruments or, some say, weapons.) One day they were out hunting and Tuval-Kayin thought he spotted an animal. He directed Lemech to shoot it, only to find that the "animal" was actually Kayin. When they discovered this Lemech clapped his hands together in sorrow, somehow accidentally crushing the skull of Tuval-Kayin. Lemech's wives are understandably upset by this, and -- according to Rashi -- this is what leads to Lemech's plea. Lemech reasons that if Kayin, who intentionally killed Hevel, had his punishment delayed seven generations, then surely Lemech, who killed accidentally, would not be punished immediately.

The torah tells us it was ten generations from Adam to Noach. God did not send the flood in reaction to Adam's sin, or to Kayin's; things had to get much worse. The beginning of next week's parsha tells us that the world was full of corruption and that's why God decided to start over. So what happened in those ten generations? Lemech is in the last generation before Noach's, so perhaps his story can provide some insight.

The rabbis take issue with Lemech being the first recorded polygamist. But that alone can't be the problem, as we learn from Yaakov and his two wives. The rabbis also suggest that Lemech's generation were idolators; the end of this aliya says that men began to proclaim "in the name of God", so perhaps the rabbis feel they were taking God's name in vain. And it is possible that the problem was Tuval-Kayin bringing weapons into the world, assuming that's what that passage means.

But let's go back to Lemech's poem, his only recorded commentary on his killing of Kayin and Tuval-Kayin. Does he express regret? Does he examine what happened so he can prevent a recurrence? We don't see that; what we see instead is self-justification and blame-shifting -- "yes, I killed these people, but it wasn't my fault and it's not all that bad anyway".

Kayin's intentional killing of Hevel was bad, but not bad enough to warrant the flood. Lemech, while he killed accidentally, was casual and dismissive about it. It's as if he didn't recognize that people are made b'tzeit Elo[k]im, in the image of God, and that even an accidental killing is a serious matter. Is this typical of Lemech's generation? Were people so self-absorbed and dismissive of others that none of them were worth redeeming?

Maybe, maybe not -- I certainly don't have better information available than the writers of the midrash. But it's worth considering that the intentions behind our actions can be even more damning than our actions themselves. We all do bad things at times, but if we recognize them as bad and strive to do better, we have a chance to set things right. If we don't, we are no better than Lemech.