By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

Sibling rivalry, the antagonism or hostility among siblings, may very well be one of humanity’s oldest problems. I call it the “Am I my brother’s keeper?” syndrome. 

Do we have a moral obligation to attend to the well-being of our brothers and sisters? The answer is YES! In fact, one of the primary principles of Judaism is to promote the peaceful coexistence of all people, beginning with peace and harmony in each family.

Sibling rivalry usually centers on competition for limited resources. In the animal kingdom, for example, the competition is usually for food. Two animals that both desire a limited amount of food will often fight with each other until one of them manages to kill or drive the other out. Another example in nature of sibling rivalry can be found with sharks. As baby sharks develop within their mother’s womb, the biggest baby shark devours all of his brothers and sisters, ensuring for himself all of the available food resources. Finally, as is well known, eagles make their nests at great heights, in mountains or trees. The first baby eaglet that is born kills all his sibling eaglets by pushing them out from the nest as they come out of their eggs. This, too, is in order to ensure that all food brought to the nest will be his.

A similar competition exists between human siblings. Often, the resource being fought over is the parents’ time, attention and love. When the first child is born, all of the parents’ available time and attention is only for that one child. Because of this, this first child feels rather special, and he or she usually gets to spend at least one year under these privileged circumstances. This period of time (even if only for a year) has an enormous, long-lasting impact on that child. It is a common observation that, in most families, it is usually the first-born that has the greatest “success” in adult life. As soon as another child comes into the family, each child generally gets half of the parents’ time, and so on. Older sibling dislikes new sibling and…welcome to sibling rivalry!

Sibling Rivalry in the Bible

As mentioned, sibling rivalry may be one of humanity’s oldest problems, and we don’t have to look further than the story of Cain and Abel to see it. The Torah says that “Abel became a shepherd and Cain became a tiller of the ground” (Genesis 4:2). When it came time for each of them to present an offering to God, Cain offered fruit from the ground, and Abel offered the firstborn of his flocks.

Then the Torah tells us : “God turned to Abel and to his offering, but to Cain and his offering He did not turn” (Genesis 4:4–5). God told the disappointed and rejected Cain that he needed to improve himself. In his anger and jealousy, Cain confronted Abel and murdered him. When God asked Cain where his brother was, Cain responded with one of the most well-known sayings in the entire Torah: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Cain and Abel: The Earliest Example

Cain and Abel are the first human beings to be born of human parents, and they are the first pair of siblings, the first brothers. They are also involved in the first murder. The lesson of Cain and Abel is that jealousy can lead to some angry and harmful feelings (in this case, murder).

The story of Joseph is also well-known and another strong example of sibling rivalry. Continuing in his father’s footsteps, Jacob also showed a great deal of favoritism toward a specific son. This time it was Joseph, because he was born of Jacob’s favorite wife.

Joseph’s brothers clearly saw that their father loved Joseph the most, especially after he gave Joseph a special robe (“the coat of many colors”).  This created much tension between Joseph and his brothers to the point that they considered murdering him. In the end, they sold him into slavery.

It Takes Two to Have Rivalry

One would think that Jacob, given his experience with Esau, would have learned his lesson not to show favoritism, but sometimes people do not see the obvious.  In this case, we see that the parent may have been the primary cause for fueling the fire of sibling rivalry. Nevertheless, it takes two to have rivalry. Joseph was not exactly innocent either. He provoked them. He was somewhat immature and would tattle tale on his brothers to their father. He also taunted them about his dreams, which indicated that they would one day bow down to him.

Both sides were wrong and made no effort to understand one another. In the end, the brothers were reunited and all was forgiven, although it took many years and much tribulation to get there.

In our next installment, we’ll look at some practical steps that parents can take to prevent and try to solve sibling rivalry.