allowed the rabbis to explain and expand on the Torah--and in doing
so, they revealed much about themselves.
By Rabbi Iscah Waldman
Midrash is commonly defined as the process of interpretation
by which the rabbis filled in "gaps" found in the Torah.
It is a literature that seeks to ask the questions that lie on
the tips of our tongues, and to answer them even before we have
What made Cain kill Abel: Was it jealousy over his own rejected
sacrifice? Why would God choose the sacrifice of one brother over
another? Did Isaac know that his father intended to sacrifice
him on that altar? Did Sarah know what was going on? These are
only a few out of thousands of questions for which the rabbis
searched for answers.
But is exegesis--the attempt to understand, most accurately,
the meaning of a sacred text--what midrash is about? In the world
of midrash, can there be only one answer to these questions?
Let us examine the issue of Cain and Abel: In Bereishit Rabbah,
the rabbis interpret an ellipsis from Genesis 4:8: "And Cain
spoke to Abel his brother… and it came to pass, when they
were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother,
and slew him." The midrash is as follows:
"AND CAIN SPOKE UNTO ABEL HIS BROTHER… (4:8). About
what did they quarrel? 'Come,' said they, 'let us divide the world.'
One took the land and the other the movables. The former said,
'The land you stand on is mine,' while the latter retorted, 'What
you are wearing is mine.' One said: 'Strip'; the other retorted:
' Fly [off the ground].' Out of this quarrel, CAIN ROSE UP AGAINST
HIS BROTHER ABEL" (Breishit Rabbah 22:7).
Window into the Rabbis’ Minds
A close reading of this midrash tells us not only about Cain
and Abel, but also about the rabbis who struggle to understand
them. Notice that in this midrash, Cain and Abel are equally to
blame. Cain is the one who commits fratricide, yet Abel was a
willing participant in the quarrel. The rabbis interpret the ellipsis
in the biblical text as a mutual disagreement, representing the
unfortunate tendency for humans--even (or especially) siblings--to
become greedy about family property, and to hate each other, even
to the point of violence.
If midrash is a literature that seeks simply to fill in the gaps,
then the above midrash certainly does the job. And yet, the rabbis
continue to consider other scenarios that might have led the brothers
"… about what was their quarrel? Said R. Huna: An
additional twin was born with Abel, and each claimed her. The
one claimed: 'I will have her, because I am the firstborn'; while
the other maintained: 'I must have her, because she was born with
me'" (Breishit Rabbah 22:7).
Following on the heels of the first midrash, therefore, is Rav
Huna's understanding of what transpired. In this midrashic scenario,
each child born to Adam and Eve was born with a female twin, who,
we suppose, did not warrant a mention in the biblical text itself.
And further, Abel had an extra twin (triplet?).
This time, the missing dialogue from Genesis 4:8 is about who
gets the "contested woman," adding a component of sexual
rivalry to the story. In this version, too, it seems that both
brothers are to blame, for there are solid arguments on either
side. Cain does technically deserve 'Pi Shnayim'--that is two
times the inheritance of his brother, since he is the first-born.
If we assume the brothers saw these women as inheritable property,
then Cain's claim has value.
And yet, Abel was "given" two sisters at birth--perhaps
a foreshadowing of God's preference for the younger sibling that
will repeat itself countless times in the beginning stories of
the Torah. Just as in the first midrash, Rav Huna has also interpreted
the ellipsis as representing humanity's basest desires--but the
details are quite different.
But, which story is more correct?
Both. Midrash is a literature that allows for multiple interpretations.
It is a kind of poetry that demands that we explore every shade
of God's intended meaning. While one might argue, logically, that
the first midrash did not agree with the second simply because
they are composed by different authors, that is the very point!
The goal of the rabbis was, precisely, in the exercise of “drashing”,
seeking and finding meaning in, the text, to come up with their
own interpretations. Each one adds something new to the mix, bringing
out small details that answer the basic questions of human nature.
This is, after all, no mere story. The Cain and Abel text recounts
the first example of a horrible reality of human life: brother
turns against brother. Besides, perhaps, the eating of the fruit
of the Tree of Knowledge (which itself has multiple interpretations),
this act is the most grievous which one can imagine at humanity's
beginnings--in fact, one can read it as shorthand for the first
of many acts of human violence against other humans.
These midrashim, then, are not merely interpretations; they are
rabbinic responses to the failure of humanity that this biblical
story represents. The interpretations may indeed speculate as
to what Cain and Abel were thinking, but, more importantly, they
tell us what the rabbis believed to be the nature of humanity's
If we look beyond Breishit Rabbah, we find many more rabbinic
responses to this story. In Midrash Tanhuma, a compilation completed
between 300 and 500 years after Breishit Rabbah, another aspect
of the reasons for violence between brothers is explored.
The Lord said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?"
and he said, "I don't know. Am I my brother's keeper? (ha-shomer
achi anokhi?)" (Genesis 4:9-10)
A parable: To what is this similar? To a thief who stole things
in the night and was not caught. In the morning the gatekeeper
caught him. He said to the thief, “Why did you steal those
things?” He said, “I am a thief and I didn't let down
my profession, but you, your profession is to guard the gate,
why did you let down your profession? And now you ask me this?”
And this is what Cain said (to God): “I killed him [because]
you created in me the evil inclination. But You--You are the keeper
(haShomer) of all things, why did you allow me to kill him? You
are the one who killed him--You who are called I (Anokhi), for
if you had accepted my sacrifice as you did his, I wouldn't have
been jealous of him!" (Tanhuma Bereishit).
Here, the biblical retort in which Cain asks, "Am I my brother's
keeper?" has been turned on its head. The word in the text
is Anokhi, a somewhat uncommon form of the word meaning 'I,' which
is, strikingly, also used at the beginning of the 10 commandments,
as in, "I am the Lord your God…."
The rabbis understand Cain's use of the word 'Anokhi' here not
as first person singular, but as another name of God. "Isn't
Anokhi (God) the guardian of my brother?" he retorts in response
to God's question, thereby proving, as it were: "It is God
(and not I, Cain) who had the task of watching over my brother
Abel, and therefore God who failed him."
Superficially, it sounds like the last-ditch retort of a condemned
man, but Cain's response is actually quite ingenious. The world
has scarcely begun, and the first human-on-human attack has just
taken place, but does Cain accept the blame for this crime? Not
only does he liken God to a guard (a shomer) who failed his duties,
but he also reminds God that since God created the inclination
to commit evil, then God is ultimately responsible!
Theology behind Midrash
What can we learn about the authors of this midrash? Here they
construe the words of the biblical text in such a way that their
own theological issues are placed in Cain's mouth. The biblical
text seems to have Cain accept guilt, evidenced by his desire
to hide from God's wrath. Yet, in the midrash, Cain is quite brazen,
and reminds God of God's own role in the further downfall of humankind.
Cain is ultimately flawed, but human, and therefore his accusation
becomes, in essence, the collective human voice, crying out to
God to ask why evil is allowed in the world.
In the three midrashim cited above, the rabbis attempt to illuminate
the evil that takes place when one brother kills the other. In
each, a textual “gap” is certainly filled, and the
motivation of the killer is pinpointed. Yet in each, there is
a different explanation found for the hatred one brother feels
toward the other. Each midrash brings its readers a different
nuance to the biblical characters, and each ends by helping us
understand the authors as well. Midrash is commentary, but it
is so much more than that.
In Jewish tradition, one depiction has particular verses of the
Torah cry out, "darsheni" – "interpret me."
The ancient rabbis were only too happy to oblige.
Rabbi Iscah Waldman is the director of education and family
programming at Ansche Chesed in New York City.