Is it not true?
In yesterday's parsha, we hear HaShem speak the words the words, “Halo im tetiv, s’et?” (Is it not true: If you do good, you will be forgiven?) (Bereshit 4:7a.) This is God’s question to Kayin when the latter gets angry at his minchah offering not being accepted. Rashi states that it should be interpreted according to Targum Onkelos: "Is it not true that if you improve your actions, that it will be forgiven for you?" These brief words may reveal some profound truths about the teachings of Judaism.
We are all familiar with the story of Kayin killing his brother. The first homicide. But this exchange takes place BEFORE the murder. And the expression is not stated in the form of a commandment but almost as a self-evident truth: God expects Kayin to know the difference between good and bad, and act goodly. Furthermore, it seems like God also expects Kayin to let go of his anger! How can this be? How was Kayin supposed to know? This the first time in chumash that we have heard of tshuvah, or of the danger of negative attitudes. Kayin was not Jewish, and tshuvah is not part of the Noachide laws. How could HaShem have *expected* him to know?
The tone of HaShem's words are that of surprise at Kayin's attitude: It is apparent that HaShem believes that it should have been self-evident that forgiveness is within our power to obtain if we turn our lives around for good. This isn't so much of a Torah argument but a natural law argument! Could HaShem be implying that tshuvah is so important that it is in fact part of the natural order of creation? The fact that it clearly seems to apply to pre-Noach non-Jews such as Kayin would seem to support this possibility.There is an alternative possibility: There is a tanaitic dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nechemia in which Rabbi Yehuda argues that the Torah was given to Adam Rishon, something Rabbi Nechemia denies. One could explain HaShem's language by saying that tshuvah is purely a Torah concept and that Adam Rishon had taught Torah -- or at least the parts relevant here -- to his son. But it is obvious that Rabbi Yehuda's argument is difficult when it comes time to explain later events in Sefer Bereshit. That tshuvah is part of the natural order of the universe is consistent with both Rabbi Yeuhda and Rabbi Nechemia. Such an explanation elevates tshuvah beyond the level of a mitzvah but to something that is universally expected of all humanity, at all times -- and something of which we are all capable.
May this understanding empower us to return to the proper path when we err and to inspire us not only during the season of tshuvah we have recently concluded but throughout the year.