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Creator or Owner: The World's First Murder, Part 7

May 9, 2009 | by David Fohrman

What happens when something you make means so much to you that you view the wondrous creation as an expression of your deepest self?

The year is 1879; the place, Menlo Park, New Jersey.

You are a glassblower. But it is a mere job, you are quite sure -- not a life's calling.

Orphaned at a young age you dropped out of high school to take over your father's glassworks shop. Since then you've reliably provided for your mother and sisters, and you are proud of that. But sometimes late at night, you lie awake. You've never quite shaken off the urge to be a part of something larger than this.

During the years you've spent in your humble shop the realms of industry and technology have exploded with innovation. The telegraph came into being just a few years ago, and the world will never be the same. Things which seemed the stuff of science fiction are becoming a reality. It is all happening in your lifetime. You would give anything to be a part of it.

Alas though, fate and fortune had other plans. Day after day, you ply your trade, and customers come and go. But one day, something curious happens. A man comes into your shop who has an unusually keen interest in the work you are doing. He looks at the delicate balls of hollow glass you've constructed, and he compliments you on your skill. Then he tips his hat and leaves.

Behold, the Bush Was Ablaze, but it Was Not Being Consumed

One night about a month later you are walking home from work when something catches your eye. All the houses are dark, save one. At the far end of the block, a light emanates from a living room window. You walk on by to investigate the possible danger -- perhaps a candle has been left burning unintentionally -- and are startled to find that the source of the light is not a candle at all. Instead, there is a man hunched over a glowing ember, enclosed in glass. The ember is white hot; its shine is terrifyingly bright, but strangely, it doesn't seem to be burning...

Suddenly the ember flares and the man recoils. The glass shatters and the house is plunged into smoky darkness. You hurry away, but in the glare of the ember you caught a glimpse of the man's face. It was that fellow you met in your shop a month ago.

That night, you can't stop thinking about the strange light. A voice inside you tells you that something momentous is afoot.

That night, you can't stop thinking about the strange light. A voice inside you tells you that something momentous is afoot. You feel that somehow, on the sleepy streets of Menlo Park, the world is about to change forever.

You throw off the covers, pull on a bathrobe, and hurry down the street to that house. The man opens the door and greets you with a smile. "I've been waiting for you," he tells you with a wink. "I could use the services of a good glassblower."

At three in the morning that cold December night Thomas Edison tells you everything. You hear about his quest to harness electricity to create a lasting, reliable form of illumination. For the first time, he tells you, people will have the benefit of light without the aid of the sun or a flame. He shows you his sketches and his calculations. He is almost ready to unveil his invention. But he is missing just one thing. That is why, he says, it was so fortunate that you showed up at his house this evening.

For Edison's new "light bulb" to actually work, the ember -- or the filament, as he called it -- needs to be encased in a complete vacuum. There can't be any air whatsoever in the inner chamber, or the filament will ignite and the device will explode. He needs, he tells you, the services of a good glassblower; someone who can create a hollow ball of glass filled with a perfect vacuum.

You tell him you can do it, that he's come to the right man. You've been making glass ornaments all your life, and it's not so hard to suck the air out of the sphere as you seal it. You return to his shop the next evening, and you easily encase his contraption in the clear, sealed chamber he had been looking for. Edison turns a switch and the dream he told you about takes shape before your eyes. The carbonized sewing thread inside the crystal orb begins to glow steadily and evenly. The seconds turn to minutes, and minutes to hours. The light continues to shine. You and Edison had done it.

Days later you both invite the entire neighborhood to Edison's makeshift garage laboratory. You and he have rigged it from end to end with wires and with these new-fangled "light-bulbs." It's a moonless night and the sky is black, but with one flick of the switch, all that changes. The entire laboratory is illuminated with the light of a hundred tiny suns. The men and women who have come to watch erupt in spontaneous applause.

Your dream has come true before your eyes. The age of the incandescent light-bulb has dawned, and you, the humble glassblower from a small New Jersey hamlet, have been a part of it. What more could you ask for?

The Danger of the Dream

The story seems to be a happy one. But it won't necessarily end that way. Troubled waters may lie just below the surface of this idyllic little scene.

The trouble begins with this:

Your partnership with Mr. Edison may have started with a chance encounter, but it is not a trivial opportunity. Its possibilities touch the core of who you are and what you want to be. Glassblowing is all very nice, but you don't think that's what your life is truly about. What's really made your stay on earth meaningful, you feel, is this great opportunity to create on a grand scale -- this chance to boldly seize nature by the throat and make something new out of it; to harness the fearsome power of lightning in a little glass ball and transform men's lives forever.

What's really made your stay on earth meaningful is this chance to boldly seize nature by the throat and make something new out of it.

Now, stand back for a moment and consider this:

What happens when something you make means so much to you that you view the wondrous creation as an expression of your deepest self, that you feel a need to assiduously safeguard it; that you see yourself not merely as its "creator" but as its "acquirer," as its rightful owner?

On one hand, there is nothing evil or malevolent about making this jump from "creator" to "owner." But it creates certain challenges. Especially when that which one cherishes was not made by him alone, but was made in partnership with someone else.

Who's Who?

The first great challenge one faces, it seems to me, is whether one will see this partnership for what it truly is, not just how one might wish it would be.

Let's talk about you, the glassblower, and Mr. Edison. Who is the major partner in this endeavor, and who is the minor partner?

Well, let's see. Edison came up with the idea, sketched out the plans, did the calculations, spotted the pitfalls, planned how to correct them, and designed the first working model of the light-bulb. And you were the glassblower who filled an order for a ball of glass with nothing inside.

It seems pretty clear that you are the minor partner. But that's not necessarily how you would choose to see it. It is a difficult thing to be the junior partner in your life's dream. And in any case, there is another way to look at things:

It's been five years since my first, fateful meeting with Edison. As I'm leaving the office one day, I glance behind me at the words emblazoned across the entry way to our new corporate headquarters, "Edison & Fohrman Electric Works." And for the first time, I feel vaguely uneasy.

How come it has to be "Edison & Fohrman Electric Works?" I wonder to myself. Why sure, the sign guys had to put one of our names first, and "E" does come before "F" if we follow alphabetical order -- but really now, couldn't it just have easily have said "Fohrman & Edison Electric Works?" I mean, let's face it. Thomas is a nice guy and all, and far be it from me to actually bring this up with him, but, you know, he'd never be anywhere without a good glassblower like me in his life. Why, he'd still be out there in his garage with all those exploding light bulbs going off all around him. Sure, he came up with all the plans, but it is one thing to think of things, it's another to put them into practice. You know, I really should talk to those sign guys about reversing those names...

Eve and Cain

Eve's exclamation in the wake of her delivery of mankind's first child may well have been an attempt to grapple with this very dilemma. How does one balance the burning passion to create new life, the sense that one's destiny and reason for living is bound up with this mind-boggling ability to create a new man, with the reality that one is the junior partner in this enterprise?

Eve declares that she has "acquired" a little man with God -- kaniti ish et Hashem. As we noted in the last article, the word et seems to convey the kind of Iwith that normally signifies an unequal partnership; a partnership of subject and object, of actor and tool. But the precise meaning of Eve's phrase is difficult and elusive. Who, exactly, is the actor, and who is the tool?

God is the architect of the system of reproduction; He designed it, and He alone stands behind its intricate biochemistry.

Does she mean that God is the primary partner and she, the vehicle by which the child came to be, is secondary? This would certainly seem to reflect the reality of the situation. God is the architect of the system of reproduction; He designed it, and He alone stands behind its intricate biochemistry. Eve brings this design into the world in a practical sense; she is the glassblower, as it were, providing a vehicle through which the Almighty's artistry can find its physical expression.

Perhaps this, indeed, is what Eve means. From a translation standpoint, there is reason to believe this is so. The word et, when used to mean with, may well mean "along with" -- as in "I went shopping along with you." Here, I am clearly secondary to you; the sense of the phrase is that I am tagging along with you. Something like this, for example, seems to be what the Bible has in mind when it says that Joseph was shepherding et his brothers (Genesis, 37:2). Joseph was shepherding along with them; he was tagging along, as it were. Similarly, Eve may mean that she has created this little man along with God, the primary creator.

But it may not be so simple. As a matter of fact, even in the case of Joseph, it may not be so simple. Look again at that verse about Joseph and his brothers, and this time, let's see the words in their larger context:

Joseph was seventeen years old, and he was shepherding "et" his brothers through sheep...and he brought back bad reports [about his brothers] to his father. (Genesis 37:2)

There is something incongruous in that sentence. What is it supposed to mean that Joseph was shepherding along with his brothers through sheep? Yes, you heard right, that is in fact what the Hebrew says. The Hebrew prefix "b," placed here before the word "sheep," signifies either through, with, concerning or some other similar preposition. None of these words easily make sense in the verse, and indeed, the phrase "shepherding through sheep" appears nowhere else in the entire Five Books of Moses.

The verse, I think, seems to suggest a secondary level of meaning. On the one hand, yes, Joseph is shepherding along with his brothers, and what they are shepherding is sheep. But on another level, what Joseph is really tending is not sheep at all. He is tending his brothers -- and he is doing it through the medium of sheep.

Let me explain. Think about what Joseph is really doing in this verse. He is using the opportunity of shared work-time with his brothers to bring back reports about his brothers to their father. Thus, while ostensibly shepherding with his brothers, he is in fact tending them -- using sheep in order to do so. The brothers are more like the direct object of Joseph's shepherding than co-subjects along with Joseph.

When it comes to Eve, a similar kind of double meaning may lie in the verse. On the one hand, Eve declares that she has created this child along with God. But recall that God appears after the word et, in a spot usually reserved for a direct object. Perhaps a secondary meaning whispers something else: That Eve has "acquired" this child, and that God, her partner in this act, has been the means through which she has been able to do so. She has used the services of God to bring about her dream.

The difference between one meaning and another is subtle. But it is not inconsequential. For while meaning A and meaning B may seem very close, it may be that the discrepancy between them becomes fully recognizable only in the next generation -- in the hands of the man named for Eve's word "acquire," in the hands of Kayin/Cain. Indeed, how Fohrman views Edison is not just an issue of attitude and perspective. It also influences how I act towards Edison. It influences the kind of gifts I might choose to give him.

And therein, I believe, lies the key to understanding the mystery of Cain's rejected offering.





This series is excerpted from Rabbi Fohrman's new book, "The Beast that Crouches at the Door: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Beyond." To purchase a copy visit or visit


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