Gun Violence Evokes Tale of Cain and Abel


Buried in the stories of Genesis is the tale of Cain and Abel. What compels us to look even more closely at it, during this time of continued gun violence, is Cain’s grappling with the issue of human responsibility.

This Shabbat, we begin again with the first portion of the Torah, Bereshit or Genesis. Bereshit is packed with action, beauty and drama. Creation captivates us, the eating of the forbidden fruit shocks us, and the tendencies of human beings give us pause.
Buried in these stories is the tale of Cain and Abel. On the heels of yet another mass shooting, this time at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard, the story of the world’s first murder cannot be ignored. The story of one brother killing another is heart wrenching. What compels us to look even more closely at it, during this time of continued gun violence, is Cain’s grappling with the issue of human responsibility.
The grappling begins with Adam and Eve after they have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge, even when God told them not to. When God seeks them out in the garden, they try to hide. When he asks if they ate it, each blames the other. God does not stand for any of this. Each party is held responsible and receives some kind of curse as a punishment.
In the story of Cain and Abel, the theme of human responsibility is continued. When God asks Cain where his brother Abel is, Cain, having just killed his brother, replies with his famous words: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It is at this point that Abel’s blood cries out from the earth. I imagine Abel screaming: “Yes! You are my keeper! We were both humans, of the same family, and it was your job to watch over me, not to kill me!”
This message calls out to us as well. When we hear about mass shootings, we’re hearing the blood of adults and children crying out to us. And when we just listen to the news, we are effectively asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The rabbis understood the nature of sin, as described in the story of Cain and Abel, to be one of habit. Before Cain kills his brother, God explains to him that there is a choice to do right, but if that choice is not made then sin is “at the door.” The rabbis who authored the Midrash Genesis Rabbah understood this to mean that if we do nothing about even the threat of sin, it will become a habit that we don’t even notice. “In the beginning, sin is like a drop-in, then it becomes a regular guest, and at the end it becomes a member of the household.” Complacency can also become a habit. How can we break it?
I suggest we begin by raising our awareness of gun violence in our city and how it is affecting us. Part of our habit of complacency is to only pay attention to mass shootings that are covered heavily by the media. As horrific as these are, they don’t tell the whole story. According to, a nonprofit journalism site focusing on gun violence in Philadelphia, we have “the highest rate of homicide per capita among America’s largest 15 cities since 2006.” In 2012, 85 percent of those deaths were by guns.
How can we break the habit of the sin of complacency and step into our human responsibility? Go to: http://guncrisis.
org/network/, which offers a list of organizations working to stop gun violence. Volunteer; donate; educate yourself. These organizations do not depend upon being pro- or anti-gun control measures. Their goal is to end the violence. 
We are our brothers’ keepers — and, just as the Torah begins again, so can we.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]


  1. Dear Rabbi Stillman,

    As a psychiatric physician and medical ethicist, I appreciated you opinion piece in the Jewish Exponent, re: Cain and Abel and the connection to mass shootings. []

    My colleague, Dr. James Knoll, and I have written on the connection between the Cain and Abel story and mass shootings, though more from the psychological than the theological standpoint. In case you are interested in seeing the piece, the links are either


    Let us continue to work toward ending the scourge of gun violence in this country. And may I also wish you and yours a shana tova!


    Ronald W. Pies, MD
    Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry
    Lecturer on Bioethics & Humanities
    SUNY Upstate Medical University


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