Tuesday, 2 August 2011

JVO: Sibling Fighting

Jewish Values Online (jewishvaluesonline.org) is a website that asks the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us -- and then presents answers from each of the dominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster Rabbi Wolpoe has served as an Orthodox member of their Panel of Scholars for some time now and recently, Nishma's Founding Director, has also joined this panel..

This post continues the weekly series on the Nishmablog that features responses on JVO with a presentation of one of the questions to which Rabbi Hecht responded and the answers that he gave.

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Question: I have two boys close in age who are constantly fighting. I know this is normal, but I have tried everything. The normal rewards and punishments don't work. I was wondering if there were any Jewish-values-based approach to sibling rivalry that I might try as a parent, or that I might try to tell the boys; Perhaps something "Divine" will have more of an effect....

This question raises many issues. What actually is the question even asking? Does Jewish thought perceive something unique or special in “sibling rivalry” that demands a specific response? Could the question not just be: how does one deal with any boys, close in age, who are fighting? In any event, could one answer even fit all? How is it possible to give advice, not knowing the personalities of the two boys, their ages, their environment?
            Our starting point should, perhaps, be exactly this, the environment, specifically the environment of the family. While we all desire a close family with strong bonds between its members, this cannot be taken as a given. The entire book of Genesis is a clear indication of this. Close family relations or even emotions cannot be assumed. At most, it can be an objective. Yet, our Matriarch Sarah’s direction to Avraham to send Yishmael away in order to protect Yitzchak (Genesis 21:9-15) also clearly indicates that it is not necessarily an overriding objective.
There is a viewpoint in the Tosephta of Sotah, chap. 6, that could be interpreted as defining the issue between Yismael and Yitzchak as one of sibling rivalry, with Sarah, as the mother of Yitzchak, siding with her son over Yishmael, the son of Hagar. Such a position would seem to even indicate that the import of family harmony is actually limited. This view, however, would seem to be a minority one. Indeed the majority viewpoint, and the one that Rashi quotes, is that Sarah’s concern was the immoral behaviour of Yishmael and the effects such conduct might have on her son. Notwithstanding the value of family harmony, and even against Avraham’s feelings for his two sons, it was the directive of God that our Patriarch should listen to his wife and send his older son away. The lesson is that there is a value beyond family harmony and that must have priority. A goal of family harmony is not enough. There must be a goal beyond family harmony. The further lesson from the Torah may also be that service of this greater goal might actually encourage the development of family harmony.
            We are told of Yakov’s two sons, Yissasschar and Zevulun, who formed a pact whereby the former would devote his life to Torah scholarship while the latter provided for the physical necessities of both (Bereishit Rabbah 72:5). In this way, both would actually gain in that the benefits of the advanced Torah scholarship, in terms of its positive effects on the society and the person, would also be shared. It was the shared goal of both these brothers that brought them closer together.
            Maimonides in his Sefer Hamitzvot, Aseh 3, in discussing the commandment to love God, states that a person who loves God will also try and encourage the development and expression of this love in others. We can add that such focus will also further the love between human beings. This may be the first advice that the Torah can bring to this situation between these two boys. Present them with a purpose, an objective, a value beyond themselves and in encouraging the necessity of the participation of both, in their own particular way, in the goal, this shared endeavour could bring them closer and lead to more harmony rather than rivalry.
            This is, however, only part of the answer. The challenging, contradictory dialectic of parenting can never be forgotten. We are told that one of the reasons for the enmity between Yosef and his brothers was the special coat (“of many colours”) that Yaakov, their father, gave Yosef. Parents are thus instructed, in T.B. Shabbat 10b, to treat all their children equally. Favouritism for one child, even if not real but only perceived by the other children, can cause friction within a family. The necessary focus, as such, in correcting this situation with these boys may not be on the children themselves but on those around them.
Proverbs 11 22, however, instructs us also to teach the child according to his/her way. The Vilna Gaon comments that this verse is informing us that we must always be cognizant of another’s personality and form our connections with others in line with this. The direction does not solely concern teaching but also the very structure of our relationship. We must, as such, also relate to each child as an individual with uniqueness in our interaction with each of them. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch in his commentary to Exodus 25:27, in fact, states that the problems that emerged with Yaakov and Esav could possibly be traced back to the need for Yitzchak and Rivka to have had related to the latter differently, in line with his personality. The task of a parent is, thus, most challenging.  They must, effectively, treat all their children the same, to ensure that there is no perception of a disparity in parental love; yet, parents must also relate to them distinctly, in line with each one’s own unique personality. Intense sibling rivalry may call upon the parents to re-evaluate the way they are interacting with their children – as well as how their children truly understand each other.
Family closeness is not a given; it must be an objective, one which demands effort. A review of the story of Yosef and his brothers (Genesis 37:2 – 45:16), applying the words of  major commentators such as Rashi, will indicate that this whole episode is a lesson in responding to and correcting, if possible, friction within a family. The question is often asked: why did Yosef, on becoming viceroy of Egypt, not send a message to his father that he was still alive? One possibility is that he did not simply wish to re-create the same reality of tension. He wanted to wait for the opportunity to perhaps correct the underlying problems in his relationship with his brothers before re-introducing himself into the family circle. Seeing his brothers before him in Egypt gave him this opportunity. This opportunity must also be sought here.
It is never a simple matter to help our children to trust, with affection in the air and beyond deliberation – still, we can teach patience, insight and the mighty attempt to emulate God.

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