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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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.

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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.