Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Taking Responsibility Trumps Sibling Rivalry in Biblical Brothers Story by Dr. Alan Singer

Aren't the residual effects of brotherly hatred sadly evident to this day in many regions of the world?
My essay in the Home News Tribune (published on 3/26/09) discusses the Bible, an area in which I claim no expertise. But I always find the story of the brothers to be a compelling one and so I discussed it in my monthly column. I believe there is more to learn from the story than the repercussions of sibling rivalry.

After reviewing the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, I am not convinced that the main lesson is about sibling rivalry. Let me preface this by claiming no expertise in Bible study; rather, a long-time fascination with the details of this story about a father, a favorite son and his jealous brothers. My curiosity is motivated by the following questions: Do any of the parties fully accept responsibility for their actions? What lessons are there in this story for modern-day families?

The brothers' animosity begins with Joseph's tattling on his brothers to their father Jacob. This caused his brothers to hate him and this was exacerbated by not one but two dreams, each of which Joseph repeated verbatim to his family. The dreams, which described how his brothers would bow down to Joseph, further infuriated his brothers.

Their father, Jacob, according to the Bible, "Loved Joseph more than all his sons" and made him a unique gift, a coat of many colors. The Talmud (Tractate Sabbath, page 10, side 2) states, "A man should never single out one son among his other sons, for on account of the silk which Jacob gave to Joseph in excess of his other sons, his brothers became jealous of him and the matter resulted in our forefathers' descent into Egypt." The Talmud is unambiguous in its critique of favoritism.

But, is sibling rivalry a justification for homicide? Clearly not. The brothers plotted to kill Joseph, then threw him in a pit, and despite his cries for mercy, the brothers broke bread together. This was followed by the staging of his death, from the attack of a vicious animal. Upon hearing of Joseph's fate, Jacob tore his garments and mourned the loss of his son.

One specific comment by historian and biblical scholar Rabbi Berel Wein got me thinking. He explains that Judah is the one who changes the course of events by offering himself as a guarantor for Benjamin's safety. In so doing, Judah "accepts responsibility," an important new theme in this story. The brothers do recognize the consequences of their own erroneous actions, explaining, "We saw his heartfelt anguish (Joseph's) when he pleaded with us and we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has come from us."

But biblical commentaries do not let the brothers off the hook. One commentary (Sforno) states that the brothers found no cause for remorse in the sale of their brother, only for hard-heartedly ignoring Joseph's pleas for mercy. Further, in the Yom Kippur prayers, there is a description of the tragedy of the Ten Martyrs, which was precipitated by the sale of Joseph by his 10 brothers, who never did ask for forgiveness. And, aren't the residual effects of brotherly hatred sadly evident to this day in many regions of the world? Therefore, the answer to my opening question is no, since no one in this story fully accepts responsibility.

And I believe that taking responsibility for one's actions is one of the most useful lessons we can role-model for our children and give over to them. We must enable our children to make decisions for themselves and give them an awareness of the consequences. More than just a tale of sibling rivalry, the timeless lessons of Joseph and his brothers provide meaningful insights into parenting and responsibility.

"Be Counted" columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a marriage therapist in Highland Park. Respond to this column via his Web site http://www.familythinking.com/