The names that Adam and Eve give to their first children are powerfully symbolic of contrasting approaches to a person’s role in this world. Their elder child is called Kayin (Cain) which means “acquisition.” His very nature seemed to indicate a preoccupation with possessiveness. When he came to sacrifice to G-d, he offered meagre fruits of the ground. He was reluctant to dedicate a significant offering to G-d. His was a grudging gift.

His younger brother, who offers a choice sacrifice to G-d, is called Hevel (Abel). This word is familiar to us from Kohelet, (Ecclesiastes) read last Shabbat. It means “vanity” or “fleetingness.” Abel’s fleeting existence in this world, without offspring, exemplified his name. In contrast to Kayin where possession is everything, Hevel implies there is no point in possessing anything, since all is vanity. His dedication of a choice sacrifice to G-d was less to do with full-hearted generosity than with not seeing the value in having any personal ownership at all.

It is only with the birth of the third son, Shet (Seth) that a proper synthesis is achieved between this-worldliness and other-worldliness. The word Shet means “foundation” and with his birth, Adam began the path to putting his life and the world on a firmer and more balanced footing.

The Midrash sees another dimension in this name to the restoration of order in the world. Having transgressed the commandment he had been given, Adam repented. He rebuilds the world by starting with the end of the Aleph-Bet. The name Shet, is spelled, שת, the last two letters of the alphabet. Having set the foundation with these final letters in place, he could then proceed to address the rest of the words and worlds.