A MIDRASH SAMPLER
1. Midrash that tells a story to answer a question about Biblical wording:
A. "And God saw all that He had made, and found it [Creation] very good." -- Genesis 1:31
Why did God say of this world that it was good? Because it was not the first that had been created. God had made other worlds, but they had not pleased God. Why not? Because they had been made without the Torah -- in other words, without plan and order. Furthermore, these worlds had been so perfect that their creatures were not able to choose between good and evil, to rise and fall. Our world, however, is based on the Torah, which gives it plan and purpose. Moreover, it allows humans freedom of choice: one can decide whether or not to follow good or evil. God's hope is that humans will eventually rise to the greatness for which they were intended.
B. "The voice of your brother's blood cries to me from the ground." --Genesis 4:10
This brief line raises two questions: Does blood have a voice? And why does the Hebrew use the plural of the word d'me, "bloods"? When Abel was slain, all the children who would have been born to him, and their children, and theirs after them to the end of time, came and wept before the Lord because they would not know life.
2. Ethical and philosophical Midrash (explains something important about human beings and/or God):
A. "And God created Man in His own image; in the image of God He created Him." Genesis 1:27
Why were man and woman created singly? Why did God create only one man and one woman? So that no one can boast, "I am of better lineage". All humans are descended from the same man and woman. All are equal before God. Hence, the families of nations cannot quarrel, saying, "We are greater than other peoples."
Because humans descended from one man and woman, the rabbis make the point that one who destroys one life is as though that person had slain an entire creation, whereas one who saves one life is as though that person had saved all humankind.
B. "Go down at once; for your people. . . have turned away from the way which I commanded them. Let my anger blaze forth against them." --Exodus 32:1-9
Moses replied, "Almighty God, why are you so wrathful? They only made an assistant to You. The calf will help You. You will make the sun and moon to shine and the calf will light the stars. You will bring the rain to earth and the calf will bring the dew."
God said to Moses, "Are you as deluded as they? The calf they made with their hands has no power." Said Moses, "Then why be concerned with it?"
"Is not the fault Yours?" he argued further. "You brought them into Egypt where humans worship animal gods. In their bondage, the Children of Israel learned this from their Egyptian masters. Remember from which land You set them free."
And God listened to Moses' plea.
C. "And God said, 'Let us make man'." --Genesis 1:26
Who was God speaking to? To us, to the human beings who had not yet been created. Human beings are not fully formed yet. It is up to us to finish the task.
3. Midrash that explains the historical situation of the Jewish people:
A. "And it came to pass that when the sun was going down. . .a great dread, like a great darkness, came over Abraham. . . and there appeared a smoking furnace and a flaming torch." --Genesis 15: 12-17
In this version of the covenant story, why was there great dread, and why did Abraham see a fiery furnace and a smoking torch? The future which God was promising him was not one of ease and wealth, but of stern obligation. The covenant demanded that Abraham and his descendants accept justice and righteousness as a way of life, and that they carry God's message to the world. It is not easy to accept such a role. Because the future would be difficult, the vision came with darkness and dread. The furnace was a symbol of the suffering of the Jew; the torch, that Jews would be a light to the nation. Despite this burden, Abraham trusted in the Lord. Such true faith is itself considered righteousness.
To this day Jews live according to this vision and this covenant.
B. "And Moses looked and he saw a thorn bush, and behold the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed." --Exodus 3:1-3
Why a thorn bush? One explanation: Moses thought, "My people are like this thorn bush; small and unimportant. Will they ever be free?" As he spoke, the bush began to burn, and Moses exclaimed, "O God, now the bush is in flames! Does that mean that my people will be destroyed by the Egyptians?"
The bush burned, but was not consumed, and a voice within him said "Your people are like this burning bush. It burns and is not consumed. The Israelites suffer, but will never be destroyed.
Another explanation: God chose the lowly thorn bush to teach that no place, no matter how small and humble, is without God's presence.
4. Midrash that elaborates upon the Biblical account with another story:
A. "As Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent. . .he saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran to meet them. . ." --Genesis 18: 1-2
Abraham lived for many years in Beer-sheba, where he built a gracious dwelling. It stood in the midst of a beautiful garden which had gates facing in every direction, so that travelers might find their way with ease. Abraham became known far and wide because his home was open, day and night, to any traveler. If his guest was hungry, Abraham gave him food; if he needed clothing, Abraham gave him garments; and he provided him with food and money for his journey.
When thanked, Abraham had one reply, "Do not thank me. Give thanks to God, who provides food and drink to all His creatures." Then the visitor would acknowledge God and bless Him. Thus, Abraham's home was not only a place for rest for the weary wanderer, but also of the teaching of the knowledge of God and God's Torah.
One stormy night, an old man stumbled across the threshold. Abraham made a fire to warm the traveler. He washed his feet, gave him fresh garments, and served him food.
"Now I will thank my god who led me to your dwelling", the old man said. From his bosom he took a small wooden idol, and before it knelt in prayer. Abraham spoke softly, "Old man, are you not ashamed to bow before a piece of carved wood, an image made by the hand of man? Thank the true God who created heaven and earth."
The stranger interrupted him, "This is the god I have worshipped all my days, and I will not forsake him."
Angered, Abraham drove the man from the house. Later that night, Abraham could not sleep. Then God's voice spoke: "Where is the old man whom you sheltered from the storm?"
"I drove the idolater from my house", Abraham answered, "for I could no longer tolerate him."
"I have tolerated him for a full seventy years", said God, "and for all that time have kept him and sustained him. But you could not endure him a single night?"
Shame-faced, Abraham went out into the darkness to bring back the old man. He apologized and promised the stranger that he could worship as he chose.
The next morning, God revealed God's glory to Abraham, and said, "As you overcame your pride before the old man, so will I be long-suffering and forgiving to your descendants. Though they rebel and I must punish them, never will I abandon them. I will remember my covenant."
B. "At Aaron's death, the whole house wept." --Numbers 20:29
It is written that when Moses died, "the Children of Israel wept for Moses." At Aaron's death, however, "the whole house wept." This shows that only part of the people mourned for Moses, whereas all wept for Aaron. Aaron was the peacemaker. When he saw two people quarreling, he spoke to each separately, saying, "You do not know how the man you quarreled with regrets his action!" As a result, when the quarrelers met, they greeted each other as friends.
Many marriages were saved by Aaron. If he heard of discord between husband and wife, Aaron talked with each alone, and made peace between them. The Israelites so revered him that no less than 80,000 boys bore the name of Aaron. He was both a lover and a pursuer of peace.
But Moses was a leader a lawgiver. It was he who forced the Children of Israel to change their lives, to forgo the fleshpots of Egypt, and to learn to live as free people. He was the one who judged the guilty, and in so doing he made enemies.
5. Midrash that fills in the gaps in the Biblical stories:
A. "And it came to pass that the cupbearer and the baker of the King of Egypt had offended their lord the King. . . And Pharaoh restored the cupbearer to his office. . .but he hanged the chief baker." --Genesis 40: 1-22
Why was the cupbearer forgiven, but the baker hanged? Both had been lax in their duties. The cupbearer had handed Pharaoh a goblet of wine with a fly in it. The baker had delivered bread with splinters of wood in it.
The cupbearer could have poured the wine carefully into a clean cup, but the fly flew in as he handed it to his master. The baker was more negligent, for if he had sifted the flour he would have removed the splinters. Therefore, the cupbearer was hanged while the cupbearer resumed his duties.