Between the Lines—B'reishit

Insights from Midrash with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Genesis Rabbah 22:13

ויצא קין מלפני ה'...רבי חמא בשם רבי חנינא בר רבי יצחק אמר יצא שמח, היך מה דאת אמר (שמות ד) הנה הוא יוצא לקראתך וגו', פגע בו אדם הראשון א"ל מה נעשה בדינך, א"ל עשיתי תשובה ונתפשרתי, התחיל אדה"ר אדם הראשון מטפח על פניו, אמר כך היא כחה של תשובה ואני לא הייתי יודע.

"Cain left the presence of Hashem . . ." (Gen. 4:16). R. Hama [taught] in the name of R. Hanina the son of R. Yitzhak, who said: [Cain] left happy. This is even as you find [elsewhere]: "Even now he is setting out to meet you (and he will be happy to see you)" (Exod. 4:14). Adam met Cain and asked him, "What happened with your judgment?" [Cain] said, "I did teshuvah and was reconciled [with God]." Adam slapped his own face and said, "Such is the power of teshuvah, and I did not know."

This midrash combines several modes of rabbinic interpretation in order to answer key questions about this week's Torah portion. What were Adam and Cain thinking and feeling after Abel's murder? What became of their relationship with God and with each other? How does this passage relate to later events in the Torah and in our own lives? The author of this midrash begins with a close reading of the Torah and then imagines an unexpected scenario that conveys an uplifting yet surprising message.

First, the midrash links two seemingly unrelated verses through a common verb root (va-yetze/yotze). Closer examination of these verses reveals a common theme of exile and sibling estrangement in both the story of Cain and Abel in this week's Torah portion and later for Moses and Aaron in the early part of Exodus. While God informs Moses that Aaron happily awaits his return, it is much harder to imagine how Cain could have been happy after complaining to God that his "punishment is too great to bear." In fact, the midrash seems to take that statement as Cain's implicit acceptance of responsibility, for he claims not that the outcome is unjust but rather burdensome.

The second half of R. Hama's teaching adds a didactic message to the midrash. In the imagined encounter between Adam and Cain, the son teaches the father about the power of repentance and atonement. At the same time, one must ask, just a few weeks after the High Holy Days, whether Cain had reconciled with Adam, who would have been mourning Abel's death as a result of his sons' violent sibling rivalry. In this way the midrash provokes us to question the true meaning of teshuvah and pulls us into dialogue with the quoted verses and the rabbinic interpretation.