Nov. 2, 2020

Rabbi Brandon Bernstein on Genesis 4:1-12 – “Interpreting the Many Lessons of Cain and Abel”

Mark is delighted to welcome Rabbi Brandon Bernstein to the podcast today. Having grown up in Palmdale, California, Brandon received a BA in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and rabbinical ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He has served as the Campus Rabbi at Northwestern Hillel, and is currently the Director of Jewish Learning at Moishe House. He has chosen Genesis 4:1-12, the story of Cain and Abel, to discuss with Mark today.

Their conversation describes the events in this very important story, and touches on numerous lessons that it imparts along the way. Their exploration looks at topics such as the most important lesson in the Torah, the examples of polygamy and the interpretations of dreams within the Torah, sibling rivalry, Cain’s sin and the nature of sin itself, the indispensability of philosophy and interpretation, and the reason for the absence of words to be found in the text when Cain apparently speaks to Abel before killing him. Taking responsibility for others, Cain’s punishment and the tragedy of ‘what will never be’ as a result of his actions, and the highest commandment in Judaism are all examined as well, before Brandon concludes the episode by sharing the lessons he has learned about humankind. Woven throughout their far-reaching discussion are the many ways these lessons and topics relate to life today, and you will undoubtedly find yourself caught up in the extensive level of knowledge, enthusiasm, and passion prevalent in this ‘fascinating discussion about so many subjects emanating from the great story of Cain and Abel’.

Episode Highlights:

  • · Brandon’s summary of the passage and its meaning for him
  • · One of the most important lessons of the Torah
  • · Polygamy in the Torah
  • · Sibling rivalry
  • · Cain’s sin
  • · Sin as distancing yourself from God
  • · The indispensability of philosophy and interpretation
  • · Dream interpretations in the Torah
  • · Interpreting Cain’s lack of words toward Abel
  • · Taking responsibility for others
  • · Cain’s punishment
  • · The tragedy of what will never be due to Cain’s actions
  • · The highest commandment in Judaism
  • · The lessons about humankind that Brandon has learned


“We constantly see these narratives where they just seem to be poking at the established rules.”

“Every time we see polygamy in the Torah, it’s a complete disaster.”

“Abel is probably the guy we want to be in a certain way…the reality is we’re all Cain, we’re all ones of substance.”

“You have the choice, Cain, you could be doing good things or bad things.”

“Our interpretations are going to have massively important consequences.”

“Realizing that you are a supporting character in someone else’s dream – that’s self-awareness…essentially, we’re all Abel to each other.”

“If you treat the world as though the people around you are just passing by and don’t matter, you are likely to find sin crouching at your door like Cain did.”

“It’s not about me, it’s about other people.”

“Of course, you are your brother’s keeper.”

“He is caught up in protecting his reputation, rather than owning his deeds.”

“He’s a total narcissist…it’s a sin of character, which may be the worst kind of sin.”

“We will follow what we do.”

“You could have been better than your brother, instead you’re worse than your father.”

“Earth right now has the potential to be Heaven or Hell for us.”

“We need to detach from that ego.”

“Everybody has as much complexity of thought, as much depth of character, as much, you know, just so much going on inside them as you do.”

Genesis 4:1-12 -


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