Cain’s killing of Abel placed so prominently at the beginning of the Torah has much to teach us about human violence and its causes, if only because it foreshadows so much of what is to come. In just a few short verses, we are told that Cain is a farmer and Abel a shepherd. The two decide to bring offerings to God, but only Abel’s is accepted. Cain responds in anger, and God warns him that he is close to sin. However, in the very next verse, Cain encounters his brother and kills him. When confronted by God, Cain denies all responsibility, offering his famous retort, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The Torah doesn’t specify why Cain killed Abel. It does not even record the words Cain spoke to his brother before he rose up and killed him. But maybe it doesn’t need to say much for us to grasp what is going on in the story. Anyone with a brother or sister can identify with the position Cain finds himself in, if not his actions. In seeing God accept his brother’s sacrifice but not his own, he is filled with jealous rage. It is as if he is lesser than his brother despite the fact they both brought offerings. It was almost as if God’s favoring of Abel was a violation of Cain’s sense of self, one that could only be rectified with his brother’s death.
To better understand these dynamics, it is instructive to turn to the thought of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and his concept of the mirror stage. When a baby is born, they lack a coherent sense of self. They are in effect helpless, their bodies dominated by feelings and urges they can neither control nor satisfy on their own, and as a result, they require their parents to care for their every need. But as the infant develops, they begin to gain a sense of control over their body, and they achieve a key step, Lacan argues, when they first recognize themselves in the mirror. In doing so, they identify with the visual image of their body because they can see that as they move, so does the image in the mirror. According to Lacan, this moment is critical in the development of the ego, for in seeing one’s image, one is able to create the illusion that one’s self is whole and complete. Rather than experience ourselves as fragmented beings whose actions are often inexplicable even to ourselves, our mirror image enables us to imagine ourselves as all-powerful. We know who we are, and what we want, and our image in the mirror reflects this mastery.
The idea that our ego is tied up with an image of ourselves we project for others to see is not such a hard concept to understand in a world where nearly everyone carefully curates social media profiles. But Lacan understood two critically important things about the image we see in the mirror. First, we see our image not only in reflective surfaces but in the faces of others. This point is often made clear in the actions of young children. He explains, “A child who beats another child says that he himself was beaten; a child who sees another child fall, cries.” While we might think that we grow out of this, Lacan argues that it remains a perpetual feature of human existence. To see others is in some way to see ourselves, as is clear to anyone who has watched a movie and flinched when one of the characters receives a shot or has their tooth pulled. The boundary between ourselves and others is rarely as solid as we might like.
The second key feature of our mirror image, Lacan asserts, is its very fragility. We seek out images that affirm our sense of self while rejecting those that do not. This is made apparent every time we look through a series of pictures we have taken of ourselves on our phones. Our first response is to find those that make us look good while rushing to delete those that do not. In truth, few sights make us more uncomfortable than an unflattering picture of ourselves, and few experiences engender greater embarrassment than knowing this image has been seen by others. Our mirror image presents an illusion of wholeness, but it takes little to disrupt it and render it ugly and blemished. The reason for this, of course, is that our self-image is so illusory. In some ways, we never grow beyond the feelings we had as infants when we were dominated by feelings and urges we could not control nor satisfy, and it never takes much for us to be thrown back into such a state.
In looking at the other, we inevitably see ourselves, and we must ask whether that image is one we like. Does the image of the other confirm our beliefs about ourselves and affirm our sense of self? If so then the other must be deserving of our love. If, however, the image of the other subverts our own; if it threatens who we are by presenting someone different or even worse more desirable to others, we are left with a deep sense of discomfort.
We experience this ambivalence most with those like us, as can be seen in our relationships with our siblings. Because they share the same parents as us, grow up in the same home as us, and often look like us, there is no easy way to escape the fact that they often serve as a mirror for us. To the extent their existence affirms our own, we remain close with them, but when their actions threaten our sense of self, we feel an intense rivalry with them and often lash out at them with aggression. To emphasize this point, Lacan cites a famous example from Augustine: “I myself have seen and known an infant to be jealous even though it could not speak. It became pale, and cast bitter looks on its foster brother.” Freud too describes something similar when a child confronts the reality of a new sibling: “It feels that he has been dethroned, despoiled, prejudiced in its rights; it casts a jealous hatred upon the new baby and develops a grievance against the faithless mother.” For Lacan, sibling rivalry is best understood as an imaginary rivalry, a rivalry bound up in the image of ourselves and that of the other.
It is not hard to see how these dynamics take place in the story of Cain and Abel, the first of many stories of sibling rivalry in the Torah. When God accepts Abel’s offering but refuses Cain’s, his very sense of self is shattered. When Cain could look upon his brother and see his equal, he could feel good about himself and enjoy the narcissism of his ego. But when his brother no longer reflected back an image that affirmed how we saw him, he was filled with jealous rage. This of course is a universal human experience, a fact made clear in the classic story of Snow White. As long as the queen’s magic mirror declared her to be “the fairest of them all” she could be happy. But the moment her mirror made clear there was one fairer than her and conjured her image, the queen set her sights on murder.
Lacan explains that the aggression that rises from having our self-image threatened by another often takes on a special character. In commenting on God’s statement to Cain that “your brother’s blood cries out from the ground” (Genesis 4:10) the midrash notes that the word for blood is plural, perhaps better translated as “bloods”. From this, it deduces that Cain did not just strike his brother once with a killing blow, but left him with many wounds because “he did not know which one of them would cause the soul to leave the body.” (Rashi 4:10). Lacanian scholars note that because the mirror image is about providing our bodies with a sense of wholeness, when we feel ourselves violated by the other, we seek not just to eliminate them but to destroy their body. Violence driven on by imaginary rivalries, what Freud called the narcissism of small differences, is often characterized by its excessiveness. It seeks to violate the bodily integrity of the other as recompense for the way they have violated our own.
Lacan’s notion of the mirror stage and the violence it can generate should be taken seriously if only because the Torah makes such a central point of it in so many of its narratives. As a result, some of Lacan’s basic insights are anticipated by Jewish sources. Rabbeinu Bahya ibn Pakuda, the author of Hovot Ha-Levavot, acknowledged that jealousy and aggression brought about by comparisons to others is of particular danger to Torah scholars. Like with Cain and Abel, the Torah scholar is tempted to see the one who is like them as undermining their sense of self. He explains as follows:
“Should one of your colleagues be superior to you in the service of God and his deeds better than yours and he tries harder than you to draw nearer to Him, your yetzer hara, evil inclination, will seduce you and say to you: ‘His efforts to achieve moral and spiritual greatness only make yours look bad. If not for him, you would be considered by everyone the most righteous in your generation. Stir up opinion against him, envy him and hate him! Find fault with him, and if you can spread an evil report about him in order to diminish his reputation.’”
Rabbeinu Bahya’s example helps illustrate a key feature of what Lacan calls the “paranoiac structure” of the ego. The existence of another person, who may be more desirable, is viewed as making us look bad even if they have not acted intentionally to do so. This kind of thinking need not be based on reality and instead reflects the delusion that the other who acts damages us. Though Rabbeinu Bahya does not envision that the outcome will lead to physical violence, lashon hara does damage of a different kind as it directs itself at the image of the other and seeks to destroy what makes them worthy of adoration. By doing this, one can reclaim the wholeness of one’s ego that the image of the other has somehow stolen from us.
Rabbeinu Bahya’s example also highlights another key dimension of the imaginary rivalries that Lacan describes. A Torah scholar becomes jealous of another because it is felt as if each one is competing for God’s love and attention and the same dynamic can be seen in the story of Cain and Abel as well. The inciting incident takes place when each offers a sacrifice to God but only Abel’s is recognized, and as a result, “Cain became very angry and his face fell” (Genesis 4:5). According to Lacan, the mirror stage is not just about identifying with the image one sees in the mirror and in the faces of others. There is a third party always present as well. In his initial explanations of the mirror stage, Lacan insists that the child is able to recognize and identify with their image on their own. However, he later argues that this is not something the child can do independently, and that it requires the presence of a third party, one of the child’s parents.
In Lacan’s words, after seeing their mirror image, the child, “turns round… to the one supporting him who’s there behind him… he seems to be asking the one supporting him, who here represents the big Other, to ratify the value of the image.” For Lacan, identification with our image or ego is also dependent on it being recognized by those we see as figures of authority. If a parent doesn’t acknowledge that the image in the mirror is the child’s own, there can be no moment of self-affirmation for the child, no cohesion of self. Parents of course can do this in many ways, for much of parenting involves telling children, “This is who you are” in order to shape them into the people that parents hope they will be. Choices about what clothes a child wears, where they go to school, and what kinds of games they will play are just some of the most common everyday examples. Yet, even as we get older, we retain a need to have our image affirmed and recognized by those in positions of authority, whether it be one’s teachers, bosses, or more successful peers. When our self-image is not validated by those in positions of power, it can lead to feelings of shame, the fragmentation of the self, and an outburst of violent anger just as seen in the example of Cain. Though today, one cannot claim with certainty to have received God’s recognition and approval, we still eagerly swap in other figures of authority to play a similar role.
According to Rabbeinu Bahya, the dangers of imaginary rivalries can be surmounted if the Torah scholar is able to remind themselves that they have a religious obligation to love all those who love God. Furthermore, they must recognize that their anger stems from their own deficiencies, for if they had worked harder, they too could achieve the same as the other more accomplished Torah scholar. However, it is rarely the case that the yetzer hara can be so easily reasoned with, and the story of Cain and Abel confirms this. God’s advice to Cain echoes that of Rabbeinu Bahya, when he says, “Sin crouches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master” (Genesis 4:7) and nevertheless, Cain still attacks his brother. If there is a message for Cain about how to overcome his violent anger, it is perhaps to be found in the object of his jealousy. Abel, as noted by many commentators, means vanity or emptiness, but when Cain sees that God appears to favor his brother, he imagines that his brother is whole, while he is empty. However, Abel’s name points to a different reality. All human beings are lacking and even divine recognition cannot change that. As the Torah makes clear, even the most righteous of individuals are not without sin, and the perfection we would impute to their image is never anything more than a deceptive fantasy.
The prominence given to the story of Cain and Abel at the very beginning of the Torah and the recurring theme of sibling rivalry in Genesis indicates that overcoming imaginary rivalries is a profound challenge. Again and again, brothers fight for recognition from their father, a recognition that is perpetually tied up with their image. For Jacob to receive Isaac’s blessing, he must literally take on the image of his brother Esau by wearing animal skins on his arms to mimic his brother’s appearance. Joseph’s brothers take the opposite approach. Jacob designates Joseph his favorite by giving him a coat of many colors thereby marking his special status in the eyes of all who see him. As a result, before they throw him in the pit, Joseph’s brothers make a point of stripping it from him, and then later dipping it in blood and presenting it to their father as proof of Joseph’s death. In reading these narratives, we are reminded that imaginary rivalries are not just for children. Rather, the anger, jealousy, and violence generated by them are constantly bubbling beneath the surface of nearly all our relationships.
Living at a time when culture demands us all to cultivate an image that will either be recognized or rejected by figures of social authority, the dangerous dynamics Lacan identified in the mirror stage have never been more apparent. Identity feels particularly fragile; consequently, the violence depicted in the story of Cain and Abel has never been more familiar to us. Every time another, who is like us, is recognized in our place, we risk feeling as if our own ego will come undone. And even if our mirror image is recognized today, we must live with the fear that it may not be tomorrow. While it does not always lead to physical violence, our social world is often dominated by attempts to get rid of those who speak, act, or appear in ways that undermine the way we see ourselves.
Despite the tremendous challenge that it presents, the mirror stage may also help show us how our ethical responsibilities inevitably extend to others. When Cain responds to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s unspoken answer is “Yes you are, whether you like it or not.” It is a fact of psychic life. We are bound to others, for their existence helps ground our very sense of self. It is why human beings so desperately need to be in relationship with others, and why a solitary existence is a fate worse than death. The question is whether we are willing to accept the responsibility that comes with this or will we only see others as a mirror for ourselves. When they reflect back what we want, they can be loved, but when they do not, they must be eliminated.
 Ibid., 93/113.
 See Lacan, Ecrits, 85/104; Richard Boothby, Death and Desire: Psychoanalytic Theory in Lacan’s Return to Freud (Routledge, 1991), 176-184.
 Hovot Ha-Levavot 5:5. In a series of teachings, the Baal Shem Tov also explained that to look at another person is in some sense to see ourselves in the mirror, however, for him the primary concern is one of projection rather than the imaginary rivalries described by Lacan. See, e.g., Meor Einayim, Hukat, s.v. zot ha-torah.