Judaism on Sibling Relationships

Judaism recognizes that sibling relationships are very important, and can be very challenging.

Having a sibling can be exhilarating, stabilizing, exhausting. People with siblings often experience complex and intense feelings toward their brothers and sisters: expectation and anxiety, joy and anger, gratitude and frustration. The Jewish tradition is deeply aware of this complexity. The popular song Hinei Mah Tov comes from Psalms, and translates as follows:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together!

(Psalms 133:1)

The language is realistic. Brothers dwelling together in friendship is an ideal, but not always a reality.

Famously, the Bible has no overly-rosy view of sibling relationships. The first sibling relationship, that of the brothers Cain and Abel, ended in murder. In this context, Cain asks God that immortal question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). The Torah wants us to answer “yes.”

But sibling relationships only improved slightly in later generations, according to Genesis. Abraham‘s sons Ishmael and Isaac were set up to be at odds with each other, as were Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau. Closeness was not possible for either pair; cruelty was more common — thought Jacob and Esau did manage a remarkable reconciliation. Jacob’s dozen sons, too, were factionalized by their father’s unequal treatment and eventually the older sons sold their brother Joseph into slavery. Each set was driven apart in its own unique way by parental favoritism and bungled childrearing. Genesis leaves little room for doubt about this.

Is the Bible always pessimistic about siblings? Not necessarily. Miriam is essential in saving the life of her brother Moses and some authors portray the partnership of Moses and Aaron in the struggle with Pharaoh as idyllic. A midrash in Midrash Tanhuma (ed. Buber, 1:24) says of the verse from Psalms 133 quoted above that it is a tribute to that fraternal pair. As the startling description in Exodus 4:16 puts it: “He (Aaron) will be a mouth for you (Moses), and you, you will be a god for him.” They were to act in concert, like God and a prophet.

We must recall, however, that darker emotions surface more than once while Moses and Aaron endure the struggle for release from Egypt and during the long years of unsettled life in the wilderness. In a clouded portrayal of two siblings grumbling about a third in the twelfth chapter of Numbers, Aaron and Miriam express discontent with Moses’ arrogation of power to himself and even with his choice of spouse: “And Miriam, and Aaron with her, spoke against Moses concerning the Cushite wife he had taken … And they said, ‘Is it but through Moses alone that the Lord has spoken? Has he not spoken through us as well?'”

We have seen that the same biblical tradition that understood how many ways there are for sibling relationships to sour nonetheless savored the sweetness that is inherent in them as well. For this reason, David even calls his close friend Jonathan his “brother” (2 Samuel 1:26).

The rabbinic tradition, which translates so much of the biblical heritage into specific laws, offers surprisingly little guidance for navigating the tensions of sibling relationships. Virtually no obligations are imposed on siblings to care for one another. Perhaps the biblical lesson is assumed to be true: a brother, being “born for adversity,” (Proverbs 18:24) does not have to be bound or prodded by regulation; he will always be there to help.

The 14th century Provençal Jewish thinker Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (the “Ralbag”), noted that while friends come and go, siblings are in our lives forever. Likewise, while friends may be there through thick and thin, siblings are especially likely to be there for the tough times:

“One who loves [i.e., befriends] another is joined up with his beloved in good times and bad times. This is part and parcel of loving: that one does not abandon one’s beloved in time of trouble … He will rejoice when [his friend] does well and assist him when things go badly. While a brother won’t be impelled to be joined with his brother in good times, in bad times [for his brother] he will come to his aid, for he is his own flesh and blood.”

Friends make good company, Ralbag observes, while siblings often do not. In some measure, though, siblings share a fate and a sense of mutual responsibility. This is the bedrock upon which all aspects of the sibling relationships rest.

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