In “Meditations on First Philosophy,” Descartes set out to determine how and if we can distinguish false beliefs from true knowledge. He began by noting that there is theoretically no limit to how wrong we could be, because, God could deliberately deceive us about even the most seemingly self-evident matters. People were uncomfortable speaking of God as a deceiver, so Descartes’ conceit has become known as the Evil Genius. The Evil Genius is determined to have us embrace the possibility that I am wrong. His real “genius” is when the Evil Genius makes us laugh at our perceived accomplishments or potential: Latznu. Cain was the first victim of this approach of the Evil Genius:
“Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to God. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. God looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering He did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Then God said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. (Genesis 4:2-8)”
It was Cain’s idea to bring an offering to God. Abel simply copied his older brother. Cain’s offering meant far more than Abel’s because he worked the land God had cursed, and still wanted to acknowledge God’s role in his success! He could not understand why God did not look with favor on his offering.
God explains, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” In other words, “You can do better!”
“You did so much. Your offering is so significant, that I desire more from you.”
“If you do not rise to what you can be you will fall in sin.”
Cain refused to hear that he could rise higher. He scoffed at what he could be. He wanted acknowledgement of what he already was. “How can I be better if You do not even look with favor at what I have already done?”
The great spiritual hero became a killer, and eventually, a scoffer of God’s greatness:
“Then God said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
God saw the two offerings and chose one over the other: Would He not know what happened to Abel?
The man who laughed at his potential made light of God’s knowledge, and eventually, perceived himself as a victim of the world – a joke:
God said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
Cain said to God, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” I have become a joke!
“When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you,” you, Cain, who overcame the original curse of the land and who insisted on making an offering of his work to God, have lost the greatness you had. You laughed at your potential; now you will lose what you had.
The Children of Israel fell victim to the Evil Genius when he convinced them to doubt that Moses would return from Sinai. They could not see what they had accomplished. They lost sight of their potential. They constructed the Golden Calf and partied; everything became a joke.
God guided them back by teaching them that they had the power to bring His Presence to earth, even more intensely than it was at Sinai: The people would use the same desire to build something physical with gold and silver to construct a home for the Divine Presence:
“Then Moses set up the courtyard around the tabernacle and altar and put up the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard. And so Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of God filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of God filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40: 33-35)”
The great Moses who ascended Sinai for forty days and forty nights could not enter the tabernacle constructed by the people because, “the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of God filled the tabernacle.”
How often do we fall to the Latznu of the Evil Genius that makes us scoff at our accomplishments and potential! God constantly reminds us how we can learn from our mistakes. We can build by using our belief in our potential, just as any couple that marries is building a home perfectly confident in their ability to build something lasting.
We saw Latznu and beat our chest, but then we use that fist to reach forward into the future with confidence. We have learned from our mistakes. We have learned how much we hurt ourselves when we make light of our accomplishments and potential. We face the future with strength.