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 posed them.
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.