Question: We find that both Adam and Cain repented their sins, yet our sages extol Reuben the son of Jacob, who lived many generations later, as being the first to repent. Why is that so?
Answer: Indeed, Adam and Cain did repent way before Reuben, however, the degrees of their repentance were on a lesser level than Reuben’s was.
The Torah tells us in Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 35:22) that “… Reuben sinned with Bilhah his father’s concubine…” The Gemara (Sotah 7b) discusses the greatness of Reuben in that he admitted his guilt, which the Gemara (Shabbos 55b) explains, was not that he actually sinned with Bilhah. Rather, it was that after Rachel’s death, he moved his father’s bed to his own mother Leah’s tent out of respect for her, in spite of the fact that Jacob, of his own, had already moved his bed to Bilhah’s tent.
Reuben admitted his guilt, in the matter, openly, for which the Gemara gives him great credit. He did so in order to spare his brothers from being unjustly suspected of complicity by their father.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 84:19) comments on the verse in Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:29), “Vayashav Reuven el habor vehinei ein Yosef babor vayikra et begadav – And Reuben returned to the pit and Joseph was not in the pit and he [Reuben] then rent his garments.” The Midrash asks, “Where was Reuben [i.e. what was Reuben doing] that he left his brothers to their own devices and now he suddenly returned? Their answer is that he was occupied with his sackcloth and his fast.
Etz Yosef U’matnot Kehuna (ad. loc.) explains that the fast and sackcloth was in repentance for the sin of interfering in the matter of his father’s bed.
The Midrash relates that The Holy One Blessed Is He proclaimed: “Prior to you [Reuben] a man never sinned before me and then repented, indeed, you were the first to repent.
The difficulty with this Midrash is that from the above quoted Gemara in Sotah, it appears that Reuben took his cue, in this regard, from Judah in the matter of Tamar (Parashat Vayeshev, infra ch. 38). Upon realizing that Tamar would suffer certain death otherwise, Judah publicly admitted his own disgrace.
Yefei To’ar and Maharzav (ad. loc.) explain that Judah’s repentance was merely his admission. Reuben, on the other hand, labored intensely at his penance to the point that it became a preoccupation. Thus Reuben’s was a teshuva unlike any other before him.
As relates to Cain, he repented only when confronted by Hashem (Genesis 4:9-15). Cain simply declared, “Gadol avoni mi’neso – my sin is too great to bear.” Thus, he, too, like Judah, repented merely by means of admitting his sin.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 22:25) notes that Cain compared his sin to his father’s and concluded that his own sin was far greater than his father’s sin. This represented repentance on his part, for he understood not only that shefichat damim, the spilling of blood, was wrong, but that it was a very grievous offense.
Hashem’s response to that admission of guilt was (ibid. 4:15), “Vayomer lo Hashem, lachen kol horeg Cain shiv’atayim yukam – And Hashem said to him, therefore, whoever slays Cain will be punished after seven generations have passed (lit. ‘Will have sevenfold vengeance taken upon him,’ as Nachmanides explains).” According to Rashi and Siftei Chachamim, the first clause of the verse is a threat to whoever kills Cain, but without a specific indication as to what the punishment would be. The last part of the verse, “…will be punished after seven generations have passed,” reverts to what is in store for Cain himself, whose punishment would be enacted only after seven generations have passed.
The Midrash (ibid. 22: 26) quotes three sages who explain the peculiar wording of the statement, “Hashem said to [Cain], Therefore, whoever kills Cain …” R. Yehuda said that Hashem’s statement was addressed to all the domesticated and wild animals as well as the birds who had come to avenge Abel’s blood. R. Levi said that the original serpent [who had brought death to the world] also came to avenge Abel’s blood, thus the word “therefore.” R. Nechemia notes that the judgment reserved for Cain is different from that reserved for all other murderers. Though it is true that Cain had killed, he had not had from whom to learn. Henceforth, however, whoever slays Cain shall be killed. This Midrash indicates that Cain was forgiven.
The Midrash (ibid. 22:28) then relates that when Cain met with his father, the latter inquired of his son, “And what has been your judgment?” Cain replied, “I have repented and I have been released [absolved of my sin].” Adam then proclaimed, “So great is the power of repentance!”
He then composed the psalm “Mizmor shir l’yom Ha’Shabbat” (Psalm 92). Although this psalm is praise to the Sabbath day, the word “Ha’Shabbat” is also an allusion to the concept of teshuva – repentance [all the same letters transposed, for exegetical purposes the vov is sometimes left out].
Midrash Tanchuma (Bereishit 9) explains differently: Just as an ot – a sign was placed by G-d on Cain’s forehead, Adam saw that the Sabbath which serves as an ot – a sign for the Children of Israel (Exodus 31:16-17), would serve, as well, as a sign of protection, both for him and Cain.
Additionally we might offer the following explanation from the Gemara (Berachot 57b) where we see that the Sabbath is compared to Olam Habah – the world to come. In Adam’s case it represented a return, though temporary, to the Garden of Eden, from which he was banished. His understanding and appreciation of these matters to the degree that he offered praise to G-d, shows that, surely, he too repented for his sin.
May it be His will that we merit to reap the rewards of the earlier generations, as we emulate their repentance, with the arrival of Moshiach, the king the son of King David, who lead us to a time when all of humanity will truly recognize the greatness of G-d, speedily in our days.
Rabbi Yaakov Klass is chairman of the Presidium of the Rabbinical Alliance of America; rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn; and Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and Rabbi@igud.us.