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Sibling Rivalry

May 9, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Feige Twerski

What you can do to ensure family harmony, now and for generations to come.

Dear Rebbetzin Feige,


My husband does not get along with his older brother; they have huge problems, and money and ambition have brought them apart. My in-laws also never showed them how to avoid confrontation and respect each other.


I have three boys, ages 14, 10 and 4 and I worry a lot about their relationship with each other. I'm afraid about making the same mistakes as my in-laws. Whenever the boys fight over something I remind them that I don't want them to become like their father and uncle. I pray that they respect and love each other forever. Please give me any advice on how I can achieve this. Thanks. C.W.

Dear C.W., Your fervent desire to create an intact, loving family is admirable and an effort well placed. The family unit has been integral and essential to society as a whole and most certainly to the Jewish people. At the very beginning, even before our formal consecration as a people, we were instructed as a family to slaughter the deified Paschal lamb before leaving Egypt. This courageous act required the nation, family by family, to observe what would henceforth be known as the Passover Seder.

To this day, no matter how estranged a Jew may be, this annual celebration still resonates, in great measure, because it is a family-centered holiday.

The concept of 'family' correctly conjures up images of caring, concern, brotherhood, acceptance, support -- people who are there for us in the best and the worst of times. The sad reality is that the existential state of man is a very lonely one. This is especially true in our narcissistic and self-centered society where everyone is out for themselves. The fear of finding oneself alone, abandoned, and rejected is greater than ever before. The extended family of the past served as a refuge, a protective oasis against this existential terror.

Today, all that remains of this glorious institution is the immediate nuclear family, a mere vestige of what once was. We must be very cautious not to burn our bridges, but rather to preserve what remains of the family.

Our family recently suffered a tragedy. Our son-in-law was critically injured in a bus accident in Israel. Family mobilized instantly. Vigils around the clock were immediately organized. Offers of help came from everywhere. Unquestionably, only the Almighty can make things right and send our son-in-law a recovery. But we were able to survive and deal with the trauma because immediate family and all of our wonderful friends, who are our extended family, were there with us and for us, offering material, emotional, and spiritual support. Indeed our hearts are still broken, but thankfully we do not feel alone or forsaken.

Your worries are legitimate. The past can impact the future unless something interferes to break the pattern. Your impassioned expressions of concern to your children and your exhortations that they behave differently than the previous generation, while not useless, are of limited value and are only a very small piece of what needs to be done.

Robert Frost wryly remarked that the reason why worry kills more people than work is because more people worry than work. Changing a pattern requires a lot of hard work. Problems of sibling rivalry and hatred between brothers do not suddenly appear out of nowhere in adulthood. It does not happen in a vacuum. Parents like yourself, who are wise enough to want to avoid issues down the road, need to take action in the formative years of the children's lives when they are developing their sense of self.

For starters, each child must be appreciated for their own ness, their individual assets. This, of course, is easier said than done because, invariably, the particular disposition of a given child may not as readily click with our own as that of another sibling who is more easily likeable or more compatible with our expectations of them.

To favor one child over the other or to invoke comparisons between children, i.e. why can't you be as smart, kind, tidy, good etc., as your brother, is an almost sure guarantee of trouble, if not immediately then certainly down the road.

The ideal would be that every child should emerge from their home of origin convinced that they were their parents' favorite.

Children must each be seen as diamonds in the rough. Some need a bit more polishing than others, but the objective is to uncover the particular facets of their individual, inherent brilliance. The ideal would be that every child should emerge from their home of origin convinced that they were their parents' favorite. A prominent psychologist noted that in an interview, when his teenage sons were asked what impacted them most in their childhood, they recalled their bedtime routine. When they were in pajamas, ready for sleep, their dad would come into the room to wish them good night. He would tickle them and remark lovingly, "How is it that of all the adorable and cute children in the world, I got the cutest and the most adorable?"

That special comment still warmed them so many years later. If a positive posture of secure standing and self-esteem can be fostered and achieved in this primary setting, children are unlikely to feel competitive and threatened by the good fortune of their siblings.


Consider the Biblical example of Joseph and his brothers. The patriarch Jacob had favored Joseph with a 'coat of many colors.' While there are many layers of deeper meanings not accessible in the literal interpretation, nonetheless, this did not bode well for the family dynamics and culminated in the brothers feeling sufficiently threatened that they sold their favored brother into slavery. The narrative relates how Joseph, after a painful odyssey, rose to power and became viceroy in Egypt. A famine in the land of Israel (Canaan at the time) brought the brothers to Egypt to seek food. Unbeknownst to them, the person holding the key to their survival was none other than the brother whom they had sold into bondage, who now recognized them, but whom they did not recognize. Joseph put his brothers to the test. He orchestrated events so that it appeared that their youngest brother, Benjamin, (his only sibling from the same mother), had stolen a silver cup and would have to be detained and incarcerated in Egypt. The brothers made it clear to the viceroy (Joseph) that under no circumstances would they abandon or leave their brother Benjamin behind, even if they had to wage war and forfeit their lives.

It was at this moment that Joseph realized they had come full circle. Apparently, their deep remorse for the grievous mistake they had made 22 years earlier informed their present uncompromising stand. Repentance had taken place and Joseph knew the time had come to reveal his identity to them. Our Sages comment that as a result of his own suffering, Joseph's sensitivity to sibling issues was so strong that it configured his own parenting mode. The test of his success came when he brought his two sons, Menashe, the eldest, and Ephraim, the younger, to be blessed by his dying father, the patriarch Jacob. Jacob prophetically intuited that Ephraim, the younger, would be the greater of the two boys, and hence when he placed his hands on their heads to bless them, he crossed them, so that his primary right hand would be positioned on the younger lad's head. Joseph objected, thinking his father had inadvertently made a mistake, but Jacob insisted that he knew exactly what he was doing.

Our Sages note that Menashe, the older son, could have perceived this as a terrible slight, a blow to his ego, but to his credit, it turned out to be a total non-issue. The two brothers were happy for each other. Joseph had raised two intact sons who were secure in their relationship, both with themselves and with each other. Joseph had successfully reversed the pattern of the previous generation.



The second issue implicit in your question is one of values. You write that "money and ambition have brought them apart." Unfortunately, this is a very familiar refrain. Consider the many 'good' families that are convulsed and torn apart by issues of inheritance. The matriarch of a nationally prominent family confessed recently "money had destroyed her family."

Indisputably, money and material resources are important. Clearly, families have to be supported; food, clothing, shelter, leisure enjoyment, etc. have to be provided. But money must not become the be all and end all of human existence. It dare not become the shrine at which we bring our best offerings. It must not consume the best of our time, energy and thoughts.

"Things that count can't always be counted. And things that are counted, don't always count."

There is a very delicate balance in life between the pursuits of material resources and that of values. We must be careful not to cross this very precarious line. When life is tested to the ultimate, the bottom line is that it is the significant relationships in our life that matter, not money.

Someone aptly said: "Things that count can't always be counted. And things that are counted, don't always count."

When money becomes the priority in one's life, then wealth becomes the identity of the person and, consequently, a diminution in material resources comprises a lesser sense of self. Thus, sharing or parting with money becomes virtually impossible for this individual. Indeed it is tantamount to an amputation, an excision of a piece of his self, his very identity. He will stop at nothing to guard and protect his territory, even at the cost of the sibling relationship. If we don't want money issues to tear our family apart, then money cannot be the supreme value in our homes. The values of caring, feeling, giving, kindness, charity, relationships, learning and growing need to be nurtured and celebrated.

In summary, our lines of defense must include the following:

1. Affirming and validating the personhood of each child with love and affection.

2. Filling the family's life with values and worthwhile pursuits. For example: quality time together, classes on ethics and personal growth, charitable activities like visiting at hospitals, homes for the elderly, hospices, volunteering, modeling the value of family cohesion by allowing the children to observe the homage and respect accorded to family members including and especially your own siblings.

3. Be mindful of family dynamics. If there is a healthy energy between parents, children's affection and fidelity will not be polarized; they will not have to take opposing and conflicting sides. Speak respectfully to each other. Disagree respectfully, appreciating that differing ideas are okay and should be heard, that everyone is entitled to their opinion.

4. Read books on constructive problem solving. You might also feel better if you occasionally touch base with a professional to make sure you are covering all your bases.

5. Pay attention to the words you use in talking about others, especially family members. Observe carefully to see if you find the good and positive in people. Do you give them the benefit of the doubt? Or do you jump to negative conclusions? It is crucial to create an atmosphere of approval and trust in order to avoid or counteract the cynicism and suspicion that is at the root of sibling rivalry. Towards this end, some families have incorporated a dinnertime routine where each family member shares something nice about the others at the table. Mom and Dad can begin the activity to break the ice. This can be an effective medium to train the minds of the family to think positive and engage in the kinds of behaviors that will be worthy of noting.

6. Notice and applaud the nice things that others and especially that your children do for each other. My son, Reb Ephraim, recently related that he had taken his seven-year-old son, Yidele, to the school library where each family was permitted to reserve two books. On the way out he asked his son which two books he had reserved. His son replied that he had reserved only one. When questioned as to why not the two allotted to each family, Yidele replied that perhaps his sister would want one in the future, so he did not want to use up the quota. Not a big deal perhaps, but for me it was reminiscent of Yidele's father, my son, who, when as a young child would never accept a gift of candy for himself if one was not forthcoming for his sister who was 13 months younger. (I have to admit this was not necessarily ubiquitous behavior among all my children.)

These are the attributes to talk about, celebrate and make a big deal over, thereby demonstrating to our children that these behaviors are greater accomplishments in our eyes than good marks or scholastic achievements. We will thereby establish them firmly as cherished and essential values in our home.

Here, a note of comforting qualification is in order. Quibbling and occasional spats among siblings, such as the older besting and pulling rank over the younger, and the younger crying wolf over the injustice of it all, while not pleasant or desirable, is for the most part within the range of normal. It comes with the territory of raising children. My family came to American after the war. We were five siblings at the time. We were temporarily housed in a hotel for refugees in Manhattan. We were objects of interest -- we were Yiddish-speaking tots, delighted with life, and everyone thought that we were absolutely the cutest. On one occasion, my older eight-year-old brother (I am second in line), had just finished giving me a punch in the back (of course, for no reason at all, I was such an angel). An unsuspecting, admiring stranger approached us just at that moment and commented, "You're such darling, well-behaved children. I bet you never fight." My brother looked up and with angelic innocence replied, "Oh, no. We never fight. The Torah prohibits it." As soon as the fellow turned his back, he hit me with another punch, the second installment. Nonetheless, even at that moment, had a stranger or an outsider threatened to hurt me, my brother would have punched his lights out. Gratefully, in our adult life, all my siblings, with my oldest brother at the helm, are very devoted and protective of each other.

7. Finally, pray for Heavenly assistance and wisdom and may the Almighty grant you success.


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