The Genesis:3 Project
After a time, Cain brought some of the fruit of the ground as an offering to God. (Genesis 4:3)
A long time ago, I wrote a humor book called Growing Up Jewish. I was a little nervous about the title because there was another book of autobiographical stories with the same name. I loved the original book, but someone had written a humor book called Growing Up Catholic, and so I had no choice.
My favorite story in the anthology was by Allan Sherman. It was an excerpt from his longer autobiography called A Gift of Laughter. In it, he tells the tale of how he overheard his grandmother, who had a thick Yiddish accent, say she needed a football for a dinner party. Allan didn’t know why his grandmother needed a football, but he set out to get one from a not-so-friendly neighborhood kid. He inflated it, polished it with brown shoe polish and put it on the dining room table for his grandma to find.
Instead, his mother found it and started to yell at him for leaving his things out. He protested that he heard grandma say she needed a football. Allan’s mother collapsed in laughter. “Not a football,” she managed to gasp out. “A fruit bowl.”
I won’t tell you the end of the story – Allan Sherman wrote prose as well as he parodied songs, so you should read it in his words. But this much you need to know: he was devastated. He wanted nothing more than to please his grandmother, and instead he was humiliated, made to feel like an idiot.
Don’t be too harsh on Mrs. Sherman – it’s a pretty funny mistake, amplified by the prop. Thirty years later, reflecting back on it as a successful performer, Allan found a wonderful lesson. But at the time?
I’m not one of those people who believes that every kid deserves a trophy just for showing up at practice. I even believe that there is a value in mistakes, and that discovering that you suck at something makes you humble. But I don’t believe in crossing the line between educating someone about their error and making them feel worthless. I can tell you from personal experience that the internal voices we carry do a perfectly adequate job of making us feel worthless.
I imagine Cain, a member of the very first generation of children, looking for some way to please GrandGod, his parents’ creator. He made an offering – actually, the word is closer to “gift” than to “sacrifice” – of something he grew. You imagine what it was; maybe he picked some of those late-season zucchinis or the tomatoes that were about to burst or little green apples that gave him a stomach ache. Maybe the gift made no sense, even in the hazy world where God seemed to show up for conversations with some regularity.
The effort was earnest, but the offering was all wrong. Cain projected onto God what Cain himself valued, but not so much that he gave up the choice fruits or the stuff he wanted for himself.
It was a great idea, after all. Cain invented gift-giving, the way we show our appreciation of those we care about. And as we head into the season of compulsory extravagance, it is worth thinking about whether the gifts we give are what others really want or what we decide they want.
That’s when we are Cain. But just as often, we are on the receiving end of those gifts. What do we do when we are presented with someone else’s idea of what we want? Most of us know how to be polite. Some of us are well-practiced at being effusive. A few of us carefully regift. But the point of the offering is not the gift itself. It is the act of giving.
That’s what Allan Sherman’s mother did not, in the moment, realize. That seems to be what God had yet to learn about the impulses of these human creations. As selfish as we can be as human beings, every now and then we are overwhelmed with the need to share something we value with someone we value more.
Happy shopping. Happy giving. Happier receiving.