(Introduction: Cain and Abel were sons of Adam and Eve. Each son brought an offering. Cain’s offering, which was from inferior produce, wasn’t accepted by G-d; Abel’s offering was.)
Cain was upset at being rejected; G-d asked,
…why are you so angry and why has your face fallen? If you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you will not improve yourself, then sin crouches at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it. (Gen. 4:6-7)
G-d explained that the choice of good and bad is up to every individual and that a person can make good choices or, if not, find himself on the threshold of the consequences.
G-d asks Cain why he is angry but isn’t the answer obvious? Cain was upset because G-d had accepted Abel’s offering and rejected his? How did G-d intend to address this anger by merely telling Cain that if he improved himself in the future, he will be forgiven? Cain is angry about the past but G-d seems to be speaking of the future.
Why do some people act like Cain (i.e. with anger) when criticized? The truth of the criticism is so painful that it leads to anger. Think about it, if one knows the criticism is absurd and incorrect, it wouldn’t bother the person. If a sports columnist accused LeBron of being completely ignorant of the basic rules of basketball, LeBron wouldn’t get upset because he knows the accusation is absurd. He’s been playing the game professionally for years and therefore must know the rules. However, if a columnist wrote that LeBron should retire because he can no longer play well, that may cause his temper to rise. Consider another case: Imagine a teenager who angrily tells her mother, “you’re not my mother” as opposed to “you know nothing about parenting; you are a bad mother!” The second statement is far more painful and detrimental to the relationship and the mother might use anger as the vehicle to express her pain at hearing the child’s statements.
G-d was explaining an idea to Cain. Why are you so angry? It’s because you know yourself that you didn’t do your best. You initiated the offering but did not give from your best. Your hurt stems from confronting that reality; now you want to project that anger onto your brother. If Cain was confident that he did his best, he wouldn’t have gotten angry because untruths don’t debilitate a person. Of course, in his heart of hearts he realized that his offering wouldn’t have been rejected by G-d if he had done his best because it’s not possible that the Almighty would ever reject someone who did their best. The truth of this reality is what angered Cain.
Examples of this come up regularly in life. When a person is late for meetings on a regular basis and is called out for it, sometimes he answers with anger and says how difficult the commute is or (total denial) how being five minutes late isn’t called being late and goes on a tirade on how people are overly critical and have their priorities confused. However, the honest person admits the tardiness, apologizes, and assures the group it will never happen again. By doing so he has acknowledged he has not been trying hard enough to make it on time.
Another case: A wife accuses her husband of not paying attention when she speaks because he is texting, emailing, or using his iPad, there are two ways he can react. The first is to truly consider her words and think about what it must feel like to speak with someone who doesn’t make eye contact and is involved with something else. The second reaction is one of anger, where the husband minimizes her comments by denying that he is on devices when they speak OR he accuses her of being overly sensitive because she should realize that he can do two things at once and that he always gives her his full attention when they speak. The angrier he gets, the more he realizes—consciously or subconsciously— that she is right and that he has the ability to address her needs but chooses not to.
The next time someone corrects or rebukes you, assess your reaction. Are you getting angry, self-defensive or overreacting to a situation that doesn’t merit this type of behavior? Even if you can’t bring yourself, at the moment, to act as you should, if you are willing—at least—to acknowledge your incorrect behavior, you are on the road to a happier life. This isn’t advice for righteous people, it’s advice for wise people because not being honest with oneself is the beginning of a road leading to anger and blaming others for our own shortcomings.
(Sources: Ohr HaChaim; Targum Onkelos, Rashi, Radak )