Filling in the Gaps

Midrash allowed the rabbis to explain and expand on the Torah--and in doing so, they revealed much about themselves.

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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.

Multiple Interpretations

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 weaknesses.

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?"

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Rabbi Iscah Waldman

Rabbi Iscah Waldman is the director of education and family programming at Ansche Chesed in New York City.