Brother & Sister in Field

Sibling Relationships

People with siblings often experience complex and intense feelings–expectation and anxiety, joy and anger–in their interactions with sisters and brothers. How has the Jewish tradition understood that unique set of relationships?

“At all times a friend is devoted [literally, “loves”]; a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). Pairing those two statements seems to be telling us that a brother is more than a friend, even if at times he may seem less close to us than a friend. The way a sibling relates to us is different, and we should appreciate the difference.

 Supportive Relationships

A sibling may not demonstrate his or her love at all times, perhaps not ever. But in times of trouble, we often find a brother or sister at our side, prepared to comfort us or lighten our burden. The 14th century Provençal Jewish thinker Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (the “Ralbag”), explains it this way:

“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.

Much of the Jewish take on sibling relationships emerges from the stories in the Bible. Speaking in the abstract, the Bible extols the deep and abiding rewards of sibling relationships. We find such sentiments in the verse cited above and in the famous opening verse of Psalm 133: “Behold! How good and pleasing it is for brothers to dwell together!”

Biblical Sibling Relationships

When it comes to portraying specific families, though, the Bible more often paints a different picture: one of jealousy, rage, and even murder. Cain and Abel were the first siblings–and Cain killed his brother. Abraham‘s sons Ishmael and Isaac were set up to be at odds with each other, as were Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau. Jacob’s dozen sons, too, were factionalized by their father’s unequal treatment. Each set was driven apart in its own unique way by parental favoritism and bungled childrearing. Genesis leaves little room for doubt about this.

Are there no positive role models of sibling devotion? Some authors portray the partnership of Moses and Aaron in the struggle with Pharaoh as an idyllic relationship. A midrash in Midrash Tanhuma [ed. Buber, 1:24] says of the verse from Ps. 133 that it is a tribute to that fraternal pair. Aaron and Moses together bested Pharaoh. Each had his role. As the startling description in Ex. 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. 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 for siblings to care for one another. Perhaps the biblical lesson is assumed to be true: a brother, being “born for adversity,” does not have to be bound or prodded by regulation; he will always be there to help.

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