Biblical Hints for Healthy Sibling Relationships

Sermon delivered March 24, 2006, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


Toward the end of our recent Spring Break vacation, Toni correctly observed that Robert and Daniel, ages 6 and 3, only seem to fight when we are present. Upon reflection, even at home, we never hear them fighting when we’re in another room. Rarely does one boy run to us, complaining about the other. However, when we are engaged in activity together, both boys with at least one parent, they will argue, generally about things that don’t apparently have anything to do with Toni or me.

The obvious inference is that, the brothers’ disputes, which may seem to be about toys or television, actually don’t have anything to do with the stated matter at hand. Instead, the boys are fighting over parental attention.

This assumption is bolstered by multiple biblical stories of sibling rivalry. Sadly, the Bible provides few examples of healthy relationships between brothers and sisters. Most often, parental favoritism is to blame.

We all know the painful tale of the first brothers in Genesis. Cain murders Abel. Interestingly, Adam and Eve, their earthly parents, are not involved. However, God, the heavenly Parent, plays a significant role. The dispute begins when Cain and Abel both bring offerings before Adonai. God welcomes Abel’s sacrifice, but rejects Cain’s. Cain becomes so angry and jealous, in response to this apparently groundless favoritism, that he kills his brother.

Other brothers and sisters in Genesis don’t do much better.

Ishmael is banished from the household of Abraham and Sarah, shortly after the birth of his younger half-brother, Isaac. Sarah demands the older brother’s expulsion, together with his mother, after Ishmael “makes sport.” Abraham is pained. However, with God’s encouragement, he goes along with the plan, and sends away his own son. Sarah is hardly to be blamed for favoring her own child; however, like any step-parent, she would do well to make room for Ishmael in her home. A few chapters later, even Abraham must acknowledge that Isaac is his favorite child.

Isaac perpetuates this legacy of favoritism, as he prefers the first-born of his twins, Esau, over Jacob. God, though, tells Rebekah that the younger brother is to rule the older, and she particularly loves Jacob. Rebekah so favors Jacob that she conspires to trick Isaac and deprive Esau of the blessing that the father plans to bestow upon his oldest son. As a result, Esau seeks to kill Jacob. The younger twin is forced to flee. Rebekah never sees her beloved son again.

Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, are sisters who don’t get along too well. They don’t try to kill each other, but are terribly jealous of one another. We don’t know the extent to which parental favoritism is involved in this particular sibling rivalry. We are not introduced to their mother, but we do get a hint from one action of their father, Jacob’s wicked uncle Laban, Rebekah’s brother. Jacob works seven years, for the privilege of marrying his dear cousin, Rachel. However, on the morning after his wedding to a bride wearing a thick veil, Jacob discovers that Laban has deceived him. Laban has brought his older daughter, Leah, as Jacob’s bride, not the promised Rachel. Perhaps Laban is showing favoritism to Leah. We do know that Jacob continues to favor Rachel, even after he is married to both sisters. Leah is understandably jealous of Rachel’s status as the beloved wife. God tries to even things out, by blessing Leah, but not Rachel, with children. The result is Rachel’s jealousy of Leah.

Not surprisingly, the children of this triangle – Jacob, Leah and Rachel – have problems of their own. Jacob has a favorite of his twelve sons. The eleventh in line, Joseph, is the first-born son of Rachel, the favored wife. Jacob flaunts his favoritism in his other sons’ faces, when he gives Joseph a multi-colored coat. The brothers so detest Joseph that they throw him into a pit, leaving him for dead, until they find the opportunity to profit, by selling their brother into slavery.

One could argue that Genesis is a book about sibling rivalry. Most often, a younger sibling is favored, and terrible consequences ensue. Genesis might well be read as a cautionary tale to parents: Do not favor one child over the other, we are taught, or we will breed hatred between brothers and sisters.

Now, I have offered no great hochmah, no great pearl of wisdom – I have presented no hiddush, no new idea – in arguing that parental favoritism is problematic. We all know it. Nevertheless, as any parent can attest, avoiding favoritism, or at least the appearance of it, is nearly an impossible task.

We may avoid Jacob’s error of buying an extravagant gift for one child, while giving the others only a pittance, but there will unavoidably be days when one child needs more of our attention than the other.

We know better than to announce that we have a favorite child, like Isaac and Rebekah, but we cannot escape the subconscious. Can we fully control feelings of stronger identification with certain aspects of each child, be it appearance, behavior, personality or even birth order?

If one child is more frequently ill, or has special needs, or even requires more regular discipline, siblings may feel neglected when parents deal with very real issues that confront us. Jealousy and rivalry are, to some degree, inescapable. The unavoidability of sibling strife, though, does not absolve parents of responsibility. We must try to become aware of our subconscious attachments to one child or another. We must be attentive to the occasions when we necessarily concentrate on one of our children. Then, as we compensate, we have another difficult task: not to overcompensate!

Thankfully, the Bible does offer us some significant examples of healthy sibling relationships.

The main human character of the Torah, Moses, and his siblings, Miriam and Aaron, are a good team. Miriam plays a key role in saving Moses’ life, when he is a baby. Aaron and Moses complement each other well. With different strengths, brothers and their sister successfully lead the people together, by utilizing their individual talents in cooperation. No, their relationship is not perfect. At one point, Aaron and Miriam criticize Moses’ wife, and they demand equal status with him. God chastises them, punishing Miriam with a dreaded skin disease. Even then, though, Moses prays for Miriam’s healing.

Ironically, other examples of healthy sibling relationships turn out to be some of the very same siblings who suffer from serious strife.

Take Jacob and Esau, for example. Later in life, when Jacob has two wives and eleven children, he returns from the land to which he fled. Jacob has no way to know whether his brother still wants to kill him. He comes home, understanding the risk. He sends gifts to Esau, and he speaks to him warmly. Esau responds in kind. In fact, Esau may be said to go too far, when he suggests that they go on their way together. Jacob suggests that they keep some distance between them, in peace. Just as the saying suggests that good fences make good neighbors, clear boundaries make for healthy relationships among adult siblings, particularly if old wounds are tough to heal. Whenever possible, adult siblings will be happiest if, like Esau and Jacob, we strive to maintain a relationship, even if doing so is difficult. At the same time, we can learn from Jacob and Esau – and even from Moses, Miriam and Aaron – not to expect unbridled, constant affection. With more reasonable expectations, a better sibling relationship may be achieved.

Finally, we can learn from Joseph and his brothers. Years after selling him into slavery, Joseph’s brothers get their comeuppance. Joseph is the Prime Minister of Egypt, dispensing scarce food resources to desperate victims of famine. Joseph’s own brothers are among the hungry. The brothers don’t recognize Joseph when they first come before him, and he does not reveal his identity. Joseph concocts a series of tests, to determine whether his brothers are still the type of men who would leave their brother for dead. The brothers have grown, as they demonstrate with family loyalty. Joseph is forgiving. His brothers are penitent. Given an opportunity to punish his brothers, after their father dies, Joseph reassures them that bygones are indeed bygones. Where appropriate, repentance and forgiveness can be a part of building healthy relationships among adult siblings in our own day. When past hurts are real, we must be honest with our brothers and sisters. We may have to do the work of repentance. Forgiving a transgression by a brother or sister may be particularly tough, but may also yield the most rewarding results.

May we all learn from the good examples, and the bad ones, in our Torah and in our tradition, in our lives and in the world around us. May the harmony and cooperation we see in tonight’s B’nai Mitzvah triplets be an inspiration to all. Let the parents among us work hard to avoid favoritism, and let adult siblings strive to build happiness together. Then, may our lives be a blessing.

Amen.