By Rav David Silverberg

The Torah in Parashat Ki-Teitzei (22:11) presents the prohibition of sha’atnez, forbidding wearing a garment made from both wool and linen.  Chizkuni, based on the Midrash Tanchuma(Bereishit 9), comments that this prohibition hearkens back to the story of Kayin and Hevel.  He writes, “Since a calamity resulted from the two of them, they are forbidden to be together.”  As the Torah writes in Sefer Bereishit (4:2), Hevel was a shepherd who tended to sheep, while Kayin worked as a farmer, and according to tradition, Kayin grew flax.  In order to commemorate the tragedy of Hevel’s murder at the hands of his brother, Chizkuni explains, the Torah forbade wearing a combination of the two materials associated with these two men – wool and linen.

Symbolically, this Torah law – as understood by Chizkuni – requiring that we separate “Kayin” and “Hevel” perhaps relates to the fundamental mistake underlying the tragic episode of Hevel’s murder.  In the Torah’s brief account of this tragedy, it emphasizes that Hevel brought his offering purely for the sake of competition, to mimic his brother’s offering: “Ve-Hevel heivi gam hu” – “And Hevel also brought…” (Bereishit 4:4).  Indeed, the Sheim Mi’Shmuel, in an astounding passage (Parashat Korach, 5670), suggests that Hevel deserved his tragic fate specifically because he mimicked his brother, rather than charting his own, individual path in the service of the Almighty.  This same competitive mindset is what drove Kayin to his violent response to his rejection.  He simply could not tolerate the experience of being rejected while his brother earned acceptance.  Both Kayin and Hevel were guilty of competitiveness: Hevel felt compelled to bring an offering because Kayin did, and Kayin felt that if Hevel’s offering was accepted, then his must be accepted, too.

In commemoration of this tragic mistake, we forever keep wool and linen apart, keeping “Kayin” separate from “Hevel.”  The command of sha’atnez teaches us that the solution to the “Kayin-Hevel syndrome,” to strife, envy and competitiveness, is to recognize and respect the different roles, different proclivities and different lifestyles of different people.  Kayin and Hevel were two distinct human beings, one producing wool and one producing linen, who should have each felt perfectly content and found contentment by fulfilling his role and following his individual course.  There is no need for us to feel pressured by our peers’ achievements to follow their lead, as Hevel did, and there is no need for us to feel slighted and frustrated when our peers enjoy the kinds of success that elude us, as Kayin did.  We need to instead focus on living the lives we are best suited to live, on working to achieve the most we can, whether it is with “wool” or “linen,” without feeling pressured or threatened by the success of others.  If we live with this mindset of separating “Kayin” and “Hevel,” recognizing that each person is given his or her unique talents to nurture, his or her unique challenges to overcome, and his or her unique role to fulfill in the world, we will be able to experience joy, contentment and fulfillment, without damaging feelings of inferiority that could lead to stressful competition and jealousy.

Originally posted on VBM

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