Lech Lecha: Stand by Me

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Sibling Rivalry
06 Nov 2008

A long-term study of the lives of 173 Harvard graduates, published in 1990, found that those who had had a close relationship with siblings at college age were the ones most likely to be happy at age 65 (1). The finding surprised scientists and lay readers alike.

The parents of Ilan and Channan didn’t have time to read about the Harvard study. They were too busy trying to keep the boys in one piece so that they could reach college age.

“Is there anything we can do so the two of you will stop fighting?”

Their parents were between them, but Ilan and Channan managed to annoy each other anyway.

“Soda!” It sounded like stereo.

“It’s Shabbos, we can’t buy you soda,” their father sighed.

“Here’s an idea!” said his wife. “You can IMAGINE that you have soda. Each of you can have an IMAGINARY soda!”

The boys were young enough to be distracted. They interpreted her desperation as enthusiasm, so they entered into the game. The truce lasted ten minutes.

“Now what?”

“He took my IMAGINARY soda!”

At this time of year, almost every week’s Torah portion brings another episode of sibling struggles. Cain kills Abel. Kna-an’s son ‘Cham shames Noah. His brothers Shem and Japheth defend Noah. Around the corner wait Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers.

Nevertheless, this week’s Torah portion suggests that there may be a way to progress from sibling rivalry to sibling chivalry.

“There was a quarrel between the shepherds of Abram’s livestock and the shepherds of Lot’s livestock, the Canaanite and the Prizite occupying the land at that time. Abram said to Lot “Please, let there not be a quarrel between you and me, or between my shepherds and your shepherds, for we are brothers. Is not the entire land before you? Separate from me, please, if (you go) to the left then I will go right, and if (you go) right, then I will go left.”(Genesis 13, 7-9.)

Abraham didn’t say, “If you were a better manager, this wouldn’t have happened.” “How come there’s always enough until you show up?” “Now I understand why the say ‘you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your relatives.’”

In style and content, Abraham’s words are conciliatory. He twice says “ma,” (please) and speaks with calm, almost poetic cadence.

He acknowledges that a quarrel could develop, rather than ignoring the tension or plunging headlong into a fight.

Abraham applies the term “brother” to his nephew—not uncommon in biblical parlance. Nevertheless, the expression shows Abraham’s respect for LOT, HINTING THAT for Abraham, preserving the relationship is much more important than winning an argument.

Rather than casting blame, Abraham concentrates on how a quarrel can be avoided. He realizes that he and Lot must put some distance between each other, and lets Lot choose which land he will take. The commentary “Ha’ktav v’hakabalah” sees Abraham as willing to take the land of inferior quality, all with a good heart.

Rashi portrays Abraham as saying “wherever you live, I will not go (too) far away from you. I’ll stand by you to defend and help you.” In other words, “If you go left, I’ll be there on your right to come to your assistance.” Rashi notes that later, Abraham did indeed rescue Lot from captivity. From Rashi’s words, Rabbi Neil Fleischmann teaches that “Dear brothers and sisters are to our right or our Left, but we can view these positions simply as angles from which we must support one another.”

The word “ach,” brother, derives (according to R. Moshe Eisenman) from the root “aleph, chet, heh”—to bind together. It is as if the Hebrew language itself is reminding us “It is natural and proper for siblings to be bound together, to stand together.

Abraham never attended “Encounter Sessions for Siblings.” He didn’t mine Google for articles on positive sibling relationships. It is tempting to speculate that he weathered a crisis with Lot based on watching his own parents.

His father was an idol-worshipper; his mother is portrayed as much more of a “tzadeket.” From his mother’s perspective, Abraham learned that you can distance yourself from a family member’s undesirable behavior without resorting to quarrels that would tear the family apart, and might not stop the undesirable behavior anyway.

Ilan and Channan, the “soda boys,” are fine young gentlemen today. If they fight, it is only over which explanation of the Gemara is correct. Their parents, who have had their disagreements, but who consistently help and comfort each other and many others as well, have led them on the path from sibling rivalry to sibling chivalry.

Their younger sibling Eliyahu had his own “brother” experience. R. Shlomo Karlbach, alav Hashalom, greeted him when he was probably no more than six or seven, with his characteristic “holy brother” expression.

“Is that man drunk?” Eliyahu asked his mother.

“Why would you think a thing like that?”

“He thinks I’m his brother.”

His mother pondered for a moment. “He treats everybody like a brother.”

The boy replied, “I think I understand.”

Amid the frequent sibling rivalry in Genesis, the seeds of reconciliation that Abraham plants will bear wondrous fruit. The marriage of Boaz and Ruth, two descendants of Abraham and Lot, brings the birth of King David many generations later. From King David will come the Messiah. Thus, there is a direct link between two kinsmen who preserve closeness at the beginning of history and the figure who will end history’s strife with unity and happiness.

May G-d give us the wisdom to find “close brothers,” and yet give them room to be who they need to be, in our families and in Klal Yisroel, so that tranquility fills our later years.

1. Daniel Goleman, “Men at 65: New Findings On Well-Being,” The New York Times, Science Desk, January 16, 1990.

Rabbi Michael Levy is the director of travel training at MTA New York City Transit. For many years, he has regularly contributed Divrei Torah to Lincoln Square Synagogue’s “Shabbat Echad” bulletin. Rabbi Levy, committed to the integration of Jews with disabilities into all aspects of Jewish life, is a board member of “Computer Sciences for the Blind,” and “Yad Hachazakah—Jewish Disability Empowerment Center.”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.