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.
There are many approaches one could take, I am sorry to say that our tradition does not offer a magic solution for this issue or any other issue involving human relations.While our rabbi offer laws and instruction as to how we interact with each other, Perhaps you best strategy is a simple straightforward biblical approach based on the book of Genesis.
At the conclusion of the story of Cain and Abel, God asks Cain, “where is your brother Abel?”Cain responds that he does not know and asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9)While the question seems rhetorical and snide, in a sense, the rest of the book of genesis is an answer to that question.We see the dysfunction of families as they dissolve.There are few moments of familial harmony and peace until the very end of the book.
After the burial of Jacob the brothers are fearful that with their father dead, Joseph will finally avenge their harsh treatment of the young Joseph. With great anxiety, they throw themselves at Joseph and offer themselves to him as his slaves.Joseph filled with pathos allays their fears and says, “Fear not, I will sustain you and your children.” (Gen. 50:21)
With these words Joseph answers Cain’s question from the opening chapters of Genesis. We are our brother’s keepers, and with that truth acknowledged, the family of Abraham Isaac and Jacob find peace and harmony.
The finest biblical view on sibling harmony may be the statement in the book of Psalms (Psalm 133) where we read, “How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together.”
Obviously you have a difficult situation and as a parent of two boys I certainly can emphasize with your problem.
My two fellow panelists have each given excellent answers that can give you some resources.The particular example that I thought of upon reading your question, however, was not given by my colleagues.
Early in the book of Genesis, Abraham and Lot come to an impasse.Lot is Abraham’s nephew, but in reality they are more similar to brothers.They are finding that there is conflict between their shepherds.Abraham (then still Abram) comes up with a simple solution.He and Lot stand on a rift overlooking both the plain of the Jordan and the coastal plain, and says to Lot, choose one side or the other.Lot chooses the side of the Jordan valley (which is how he ended up in the city of Sodom) and Abraham goes the other way.After that there is no conflict between them in that generation.
Therefore, the solution that you seek may be one simply of separation.There is no suggestion that because of the separation Abraham and Lot loved each other less; rather the opposite seems to become the case.At this point in their lives, your boys may be straining to find their own identity and may require a separation of sorts from one another.I would encourage you to help each of them cultivate their own interests at their own pace, and through some time apart, they may come to better cherish their time together.
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