Thursday, October 27, 2016

Bereshit: Sibling Rivalry

The first in a series, Parshah and Parenting: A Weekly Exploration. Join me each week! 

Bereshit is the first parashah of the Torah. We look to it for the how and why of creation, the first principles of civilization. And there, in the earliest days of humanity, we find an intense--and ultimately deadly--rivalry between the first two brothers on earth.What can parents learn from this intense introduction to family dynamics?

In Bereshit Chapter 4 we read: 

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. 
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. 
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” 
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Why did Cain kill Abel? The straight reading is that he was angry that God had preferred Abel’s offering.The commentator Ramban suggests that Cain was worried that his father would give his inheritance, the whole world, to his brother. Yet another interpretation suggests that Cain may not even have known murder was possible—this is, after all, the first human death in the Torah. He was just so jealous and hurt and angry, feeling cut off from God and family. 

An interesting midrash in Tractate Avoda Zara suggests that Abel attacked Cain first, as the two physically grappled over how they would divide the world:
Cain, aware of how badly it was going with him, began to plead aloud: Abel my brother, there are only two of us in the world, What are you going to tell our father?...Abel, filled with compassion, let him go. At once Cain rose up against him and slew him. 

So emotions are running high, and there is blame to go around. Things get out of control. But then, when faced with the terrible aftermath, he tries to avoid responsibility: Am I my brother's keeper? 

Bereshit Rabbah offers a midrash in which Abel quarrels with God: 
You are the keeper of all things--yet YOU let me slay him. It is you who slew him. Had you accepted my offering as YOU did his, I would not have been jealous of him. 
Fear, deflection. But not much repentance.  
Sibling rivalry is old as human history. A force of nature. How can I stop it? 
We have three boys under the age of 10, and the older two fight over everything and anything. Who gets to wash their hands first. Who gets to sit on the sofa. Who got more dessert. It’s not that they’re competing over scare resources—they are surveying a rich array of opportunities, deliberately seizing on the same one, and going to war. He got MORE. It’s not FAIR. I want to go FIRST. Kicking. Tripping. They waste vast amounts of energy, not to mention good will. It’s not fun for anybody. Like Cain, they sometimes hurt each other much more than they intended.
And yet…they don’t really know how to stop.
I’m not content to let them fight it out. I’m committed to raising kind and compassionate children, and I know that their education in empathy must begin at home. So my boys must learn to be their brother's keeper. And when they inevitably slip they must learn to take responsibility, to admit wrongdoing, ask forgiveness.
It's a process. But today, on the recommendation of this article, we’ve set some ground rules for our little brotherhood: 1) No Hitting or Kicking  2) No Name Calling  3) No Yelling. Nothing radical, but I’m hoping that setting objective standards frees me from the role of referee.
As parents, we have some work to do as well. We are redoubling our efforts to spend special time alone with each of the children as often as possible, in order to strengthen our connections with each of them. We'll strive to ensure that they feel valued for their strengths, supported in their weaknesses, and that they are treated equally. So that they know—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that their offering will always be accepted. 

What do you do to reduce sibling rivalry in your family?

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