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/

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Good Questions About Miraculous Births

Infertility doctors are getting better and better at delivering miracles.
A recent piece in the Baltimore Sun titled, Limiting Reproduction asks some excellent questions:
Is it responsible for a woman to bear children regardless of her age and number of babies involved?
Is it ethical for fertility clinics to facilitate a paying customer's pregnancy simply because they know how?

The article (correctly in my view) suggests that it may be time for federal and state government to consider legal rules and boundaries for the fertility industry. Authors Pertman and Cahn describe a 60 year old woman who travelled to India for IVF because Canadian doctors deemed it unethical to treat her.

For my other posts on infertility please click here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The White House Experiment in Child Rearing

Fathers: Running the U.S. is like running a family.
I like Lisa Belkin's essays. Her piece "Father in Chief" recently appeared in the NY Times. It's because our new President seems to be such a good father that the comparisons are numerous.

"Like governing", Belkin tells us, "parenting is messy".
A good parent must tell the truth; shielding children from reality rarely works and leads to distrust. While pushing his stimulus plan, President Obama said the action was needed to keep a "crisis" from spiraling into a "catastrophe". Truth is good.

A good parent listens, asks questions, hears all views, and then decides. Obama listened and he called it bipartisanship.

A good parent admits mistakes like when Obama admitted that he messed up with several cabinet recommendations.

"Maybe we want to know that Dad can be fallible except when he actually is."

Friday, March 13, 2009

There's A Tremendous Impulse to Altruism Genetically in Mankind

Well isn't that headline good news?

The nation's woes are inspiring people to make generous gestures to acquaintances, employees, and even strangers.

Take 2 minutes to read a terrific piece by Judy Keen in USA Today. Yes, the times we are in are economically miserable, but there are some terrific people out there doing great stuff. Like Scott Haag in Milwaukee, who is offering his 75 workers $2000 toward a new car and $1000 for a used car.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Kids Make You Happy (Not): More Discussion

"The key to happiness in life is low expectations" (author unknown).
Research that shows Kids don't make you happy does not trouble me in the least. I am happy that my wife and I decided to have kids and we have 4 wonderful children, 2 of whom now have terrific spouses. Click here to listen to Robin Simon, Sociologist at FSU, discussing last summer's Newsweek article on this very topic.

But, have I been a "happy" Dad all day-every day, since becoming a father 29 years ago? Of Course Not.
Do people have children as an antidote to depression? (I hope not)
Do people have children because they look around at the world and think, "Everyone with children....they look so happy"? (I don't think so)

The decision to have children needs to be made knowing that there are rewards for parenting which are deep and fulfilling to be sure. But, one of the rewards, if you asked me, is certainly not automatic happiness. There is abundant happiness in parenting; it's just not 24/7.

So if you're thinking of having kids to bring you happiness, please think again.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Shiri is Right; Everything's Bad for You

Overprotective parents and environmental hazards, how do we strike the proper balance?

My friend since childhood Shiri, is fond of saying, "When you think about it, really everything is bad for you." It is true to a certain extent. How do parents make the best choices for their children without becoming overprotective helicopter parents?

Peggy Orenstein wrote a great piece titled, The Toxic Paradox. She cites numerous examples that people panic about: lead in synthetic athletic turf, Bisphenol A in dental sealants, mercury in tuna, microwaving in plastic.....and she raises the question: What, in our time, does "safe" even mean?

There truly are a billion (since billion is the new million) things to worry about because we parents want to protect our children from harm. But along comes the journal Pediatrics in 2004 and explains that jittery parents have more to fear from fire, car accidents, and drowning than from toxic chemical exposure (with the exception of lead that still threatens the health of millions of children).

"You can't raise your kid in a bubble" Orenstein correctly points out. So here are my thoughts: when research is clear and numerous studies point in the same direction, then for example, you stop smoking. You learn to adapt and you change your ways, it's common sense. When we were kids growing up in Florida, going out in the sun for a few hours was beneficial because you received some much needed Vitamin D. Now you can receive much feared skin cancer such as melanoma. So you adapt, you spend less time in the sun and whenever you venture out in summer, use sun screen.

You cannot panic at every research study (coming attractions: do forward facing strollers hinder language development in infants?) but you cannot ignore them either. You have to trust someone. So when you are pregnant, bring your questions to your Ob/Gyn. When you have children, bring your list of "Is this harmful to my child?" to your Pediatrician.

Try to parent from your guts, not just from your brain!