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Parshat Vayechi: Simmering Sibling Tensions

In this week’s parsha we have an epilogue to the story of Joseph and his brothers. After father Jacob dies and is buried in an elaborate funeral back in his homeland of Canaan, the Torah recounts the fear that gripped the brothers after their father’s demise.

Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead and they said, “Perhaps Joseph still harbors hatred towards us and will return to us the evil that we did against him.” So Joseph was told, “Your father gave orders before his death as follows: ‘Tell Joseph to please bear the offense of your brothers and their sin, for they have done you wrong.'” 

The brothers worried that Joseph had quietly kept his hatred of them all this time while their father was alive. And now that Jacob had passed on, Joseph would finally exact his revenge. Their anxiety over this possibility was so great that they fabricated a story, claiming that their father’s dying request was that Joseph should forgive them for selling him into slavery. Joseph readily does and reiterates that it has all worked out for the best inasmuch as he can now sustain them in the land of Egypt.

What was it about Jacob’s death that suddenly gave rise to this renewed sense of fear of repercussions by Joseph? After all, they had been living with Brother Joe quite peaceably for 17 years in Egypt. In fact, he had been providing for the family all that time and arranged for them to live comfortably there. It seems that the family had overcome whatever tensions and animosities may have lingered from the past. 

But apparently this was not the case. There still lurked a dormant anxiety in the hearts of the brothers. In order to understand why precisely at this juncture the brothers felt threatened, we need to look at how siblings regard one another as they get older. 

Sibling rivalry is always a concern in any family. Children, young and old, will quarrel about which child is favoured, which one seems to get away with everything and other similar issues in the course of family dynamics. “You never let me get away with that,” is a common refrain Karen and I hear about our youngest, Batsheva from her older brothers and sisters. 

While these conflicts certainly exist when parents are living, they often pale in comparison to tensions that arise after parents pass away. When parents are no longer, hidden dislikes, distrusts and animosities have a greater tendency to come to the fore. 

The reason for this is that parents are the natural focal point for brothers and sisters. They are the center point of the wheel, tying together all the spokes. However, once they are gone, the hub is lost and children can very easily fly off, going their separate ways. Lost is the natural, common bond and fabric that has kept them together as a family unit for so many years. 

If siblings take the initiative and develop their own relationships with one another, then there is a greater chance that their love and connection to each other will remain intact. As children get older and often become parents themselves – preoccupied with their own families – they need to develop their own bonds to siblings beyond the seasonal family get-togethers and life-cycle events. There needs to be independent relationships between brothers and sisters that stand on their own. When children are young and living under the same roof, it happens naturally. But once they get older and have their own homes, families and independent lives, that is no longer the case.

How sad and tragic when siblings drift apart after spending so much time and life together. All because they never put the time or effort into creating their own relationships, independent of the common life they shared through their parents. Worse is when animosities develop which pits one child against another as is frequently the case over monetary issues. It’s always sad to hear of siblings who grew up in the same home – maybe even sharing the same bedroom and spending so much time sharing a table and formative years with one another – that no longer even speak to each other.

This is what the commentator, Samson Raphael Hirsch points out in explaining this new concern from Joseph’s brothers. Now that father Jacob – the glue that bound them together – was gone, they feared that Joseph would put into action his deep hidden hatred they thought he still harbored against them. But little did they know and appreciate that the care and sustenance Joseph gave them all those years in Egypt wasn’t only out of honour and respect for their father. No it was from his sincere love and care that he had for his brothers themselves – irrespective of father Jacob, and irrespective of their behavior towards him so long ago. 

There is no greater pain and curse for a parent than to see their children fight amongst each other. On the other hand, there is no greater blessing and pleasure for a parent than to see their children getting along and sincerely caring for one another, helping each other and being there for one another. This is certainly true when the children are young, but is magnified tremendously when they are adults. I know personally that one of my father’s greatest joys was whenever he found out that one of us brothers took the initiative to assist another. 

Happy is the father and mother who have fostered such blessings of unity and love among their children. They are at peace in this world … and in the next.

We are family
I got all my sisters with me

Everyone can see we’re together
As we walk on by
And we fly just like birds of a feather
All of the people around us to say
Can we be that close
Just let me state for the record
We’re giving love in a family dose
-Sister Sledge

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