Dedicated in memory of Davina Hool who passed away this week in London. May her children continue to love and respect each other.
Simmering Sibling Tensions
In this week’s Torah portion there is a little known epilogue to the story of Joseph and his brothers. After father Jacob dies and is buried in an elaborate funeral in Canaan (Israel), the Torah recounts the fear that the brothers had of Joseph that arose in their heart 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 dad 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 felt compelled to fabricate 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 to them 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. Apparently that was not the case and in order to understand why precisely at this point 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. At that point, 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 of 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 chance that their love for 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 one another 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 not 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 bond, 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. I am always saddened when I hear of siblings who grew up in the same home, maybe shared the same bedroom and spent so much time sharing a table and formative years with one another and now no longer even speak to one another.
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 understand that the care and sustenance Joseph gave them all those years in Egypt wasn’t only out of honor and respect for their father. No it was from his sincere love and care that he had for his brothers and their families 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.
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