Hostility & Harmony: The Iconic Sibling Sagas of Tanach

"Josef was snatched from the pit and sold off to Egypt; the brothers all assumed that he would never be seen or heard from again. The family that returns home to their father is broken, and as we recreate this scene in the weekly Torah reading each year, we wonder - year after year, generation after generation: When will our family finally become whole?"

The social evolution of brotherhood beginning with Cain and Abel and ending with Moses and Aaron.

In a sense, the entire first book of the Torah is a book of sibling intrigue, involving competition, jealousy and even murder. As Abel’s bloodied, lifeless body lies on the ground in a lonely field, God calls out to Cain and asks, or perhaps demands, “Where is your brother Abel?’ Cain responds cynically, “Am I my brother’s keeper”? The answer, of course, is a resounding “YES!” We are, indeed, responsible for our brothers and sisters, our immediate and extended families.

At various critical points throughout the book of Bereishit, this lesson seems to have been forgotten. Vicious cycles play themselves out over and over: More hatred, more jealousy. Even when violence is narrowly averted, it is a constant threat. The first two brothers, Cain and Abel, were murderer and victim respectively. Fraternal jealousy led to fratricide.  The tragic end to the relationship between Cain and Abel unleashed the spiritual power for other arguments that will take place in the future. As the chapters unfold, we find so many brothers who do not get along that we are quickly convinced this is in fact one of the major themes of the book: Bereishit may be seen, not unjustifiably, as the story of sibling rivalry and family discord.

While all of the Patriarchs experienced tension and conflict, to a great extent their issues were eventually resolved. For example, there is a certain amount of tension in Abraham’s life stemming from the battle for status as his “real” wife between Hagar and Sarah. This conflict is so quickly resolved with the exile of Hagar, that it is hard for us to even admit that this was a serious question. Who is Abraham’s “real” son, Ishmael or Isaac? Again, this question is immediately resolved. The conflicts in Abraham’s life are resolved so quickly and efficiently that we are lulled into thinking that they never existed. So, too, with Isaac: Who is Isaac’s “real” son, the one who would continue the line and the Covenant – Jacob or Esau? The tension lasts for approximately one chapter and is resolved.

However, when we look at Jacob, resolutions are scarce. Who is his “real” wife, Rachel or Leah? This is a haunting question; a fair argument could be made for each. Shall we say that the real wife is the woman he first loved? Is it the woman who brought most of Jacob’s children into the world? Or is it perhaps the woman buried beside him in the ancestral burial ground? And who is Jacob’s “primary” son, Josef or Judah? The questions seem more intriguing than the answer could possibly be. 


Parshat VaYetze opens as Jacob runs for his life: He had been told that his brother Esau has murder on his mind, that he intends to take revenge on for Jacob’s deceptive acquisition of blessings that he felt were rightly his own – and Jacob doesn’t stick around to see if Esau will make good on his threat.

The inauspicious beginning of Jacob’s journey is a stark contrast with the blessings in question: Jacob is a fugitive; he is destitute and afraid for his life. He has no place to sleep, and no possessions. The blessings do not seem to have had any immediate magical effect.

Jacob had been put in an untenable situation. His mother Rebecca had not merely encouraged him to impersonate his brother Esau and to secure their father’s blessing for himself, she had commanded him to do so. Jacob faced an impossible choice: Should he obey his mother, if it means deceiving his father? Or should he ignore his mother’s orders, which may well have been motivated by the prophecy she had received years earlier? And were these blessings not rightfully Jacob’s to take? Esau had abdicated his rights as firstborn years earlier; he had willingly, even enthusiastically, passed the responsibilities to his younger brother. Should the blessings not have accrued to Jacob as part of the deal?

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) was a leading spiritual, intellectual and communal figure in his day. Among his many accomplishments was the creation of an educational format that put individuals, both male and female, in the center. Not coincidentally, in his commentary on Parshat Toldot, Rabbi Hirsch took aim at the second generation of our patriarchs, Isaac and Rebecca, pointing out what he saw as a shortcoming on their part. Rabbi Hirsch accuses them of failing to tailor their children’s education to their individual personalities. Because they raised their children identically, the responsibility for the failure of one child (Esau) to live up to parental expectations is placed squarely on their shoulders; their parenting skills, or lack of such, were insufficient to provide Esau with what he needed to succeed. Esau was raised and educated precisely the way Jacob was raised and educated – and this was a failure Isaac and Rebecca shared.


Later on in the story, we see that Jacob’s life is still full of unresolved conflicts and tension. It is within these unresolved conflicts that the depth of Jacob’s identity emerges and his essence is revealed. The atmosphere in Jacob’s home was bristling with internecine rivalry and fraught with constant jockeying for position, power, status – and the love of their father. When the brothers set out with the flocks, Josef was not among them; his job was somehow connected, but somehow disconnected, from the others’. Jacob then sends Josef out to find and check up on the brothers and report back to him. And so, the brothers see Josef in the distance, his bright coat of many colors looking more and more like a target painted on his back. The sons of Leah articulate a plan: “Let’s kill Josef.”

Reuben, the oldest brother tries to save Josef; rather than making a snap decision to murder, he advocates a slower, more deliberate course of action. Unfortunately for them both, before Reuben could implement his plan, Josef was snatched from the pit and sold off to Egypt; the brothers all assumed that he would never be seen or heard from again. The family that returns home to their father is broken, and as we recreate this scene in the weekly Torah reading each year, we wonder – year after year, generation after generation: When will our family finally become whole?

Josef, who was a victim of his brothers’ ire, forces this problem out of the shadows of the subconscious and up to the surface, orchestrating the situation in which Judah, the very person who had spearheaded the violence against him, morphs into the protector of his brother Benjamin.  The book of Bereishit comes to a close with this chord of conciliation and brotherly responsibility.

However, as the book of Bereishit nears its conclusion, there is some “unfinished” business. At first glance the issue is a local one, concerning a topic that has been hovering over the past few chapters: the reconciliation between Josef and his brothers. While our initial impression is that in Parshat Vayigash, the brother’s had buried the hatchet in dramatic fashion, there was something unsettling, something one-sided about their rapprochement.

We hear Josef’s words, and feel the raw emotion as he reveals to the sons of Jacob that the man who has been tormenting them is none other than their long-lost brother. But what of the brothers? The Torah does not tell us what they said or, perhaps more importantly, what they felt. Did they finally come to see him as their brother? Did they see the error of their ways? Did they apologize to him? And even if they could not wrap their mouths around those difficult words, if they did not come to love or respect him, did they accept Josef’s dreams not as delusional or self-serving, but as an accurate prediction of the future? Any intelligent observer, any reader of the text sensitive to the symbolic messages of Josef’s dreams, is forced to acknowledge that Josef’s dreams of economic and political superiority were clearly fulfilled. Did the brothers finally grasp the full import of Josef’s dreams, and accept the fact that Josef had vision that far surpassed their own?

At this point, the Torah then records the passing of Jacob, many years later. Tragically, upon Jacob’s death, the brothers plead with Josef not to exact revenge upon them. They tell Josef that on his deathbed, their father ordered Josef to do them no harm. They beg him to spare their lives and let them live out their days as his slaves. Although the Talmud debates whether or not Jacob had actually addressed his sons’ relationships with one another on his deathbed, or whether the brothers had concocted this dying wish for self-preservation, the painful truth is the same: Apparently, after all these years, the brothers still did not trust Josef. Perhaps they suspected that his words of reconciliation had been motivated by political expedience: In his glorified position it was unseemly that he had no family, no past. Perhaps they suspected that he tolerated their presence only as a means of reuniting with his beloved father, and that with his death his true colors would emerge. The Torah records Josef’s impassioned speech on this occasion as well: Once again, after seventeen years as their protector and benefactor, Josef assures his brothers of his fidelity toward them. 


Yet, a light of hope shines through these dark and twisted accounts of brotherhood. When Jacob realizes his death is imminent, he gathers his family around him. But before he gives his 12 sons each a blessing, he calls upon two of his grandchildren – Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe – to receive blessings. Why would Jacob place priority on blessing grandchildren over children?

Ephraim and Menashe were the first set of Jewish brothers who did not fight. As we explained at length, Abraham’s two sons – Isaac and Ishmael – could not get along, and their disagreement forms the basis of the Arab-Israeli conflict until today. The next generation – Isaac’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau – were so contentious that Esau repeatedly sought to kill Jacob and instructed his descendants to do the same. Jacob’s sons sold Joseph into slavery. Ephraim and Menashe represent a break from this pattern. 

The Torah describes the scene as follows:

Joseph took the two of them, Ephraim with his right hand—to Israel’s [Jacob’s] left—and Manasseh with his left hand—to his right—and brought them close to him. But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh’s head—thus crossing his hands—although Manasseh was the first-born. (Genesis 48:13-14)

Why did Jacob purposely switch his hands, blessing the younger Ephraim before the older, Menashe? Jacob wished to emphasize the point that with these siblings, there is no jealousy or rivalry.

One of the most beautiful customs in Jewish life is for parents to bless their children at the start of the Friday night Shabbat meal. Girls receive the blessing: “May God make you like the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” Boys, meanwhile, are blessed “to be like Ephraim and Menashe.” What happened to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Why are Ephraim and Menashe instead the subjects of this important tradition?

This illustrates the idea that there is no greater blessing than peace among siblings. The words of King David ring true: “How good and pleasant is it for brothers to sit peacefully together”Hiney ma tov u’ma’nayim, shevet achim gam yachad (Psalms 133:1).

It is with this thought that parents bless their children today.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) offers another explanation of why Jewish boys throughout the ages have received the blessing of Ephraim and Menashe:

The first generations of Jews – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – raised their children primarily in the Land of Israel. The Holy Land is the most hospitable Jewish environment, where the Talmud reports that “even the air makes you wise.” In one sense, being Jewish in Israel is easy. But due to famine, Jacob and his family moved to Egypt. The next generation would grow up surrounded by pagan immorality. The challenge was if Judaism would survive amidst all the distractions of diaspora life.

Throughout the ages, Jewish parents have prayed that their children withstand the temptations of exile, and keep a strong, proud Jewish identity. What was the outcome with Ephraim and Menashe? Despite great odds, they grew up in Egypt and maintained adherence to Torah ideals and practice. Which is why we bless our sons to be like them, expressing our hope for proud Jewish children – and grandchildren. 


The final chapter of the book of Bereishit seems to have an unsatisfying end with no real conclusion or resolution. And that may be the greatness of the book’s conclusion: The book does not end with the sale of Josef. It does not end with Josef overcoming impossible odds and rising to greatness. It ends as Josef forgives his brothers, and cares for them for the rest of his life. This is true greatness of spirit. From beginning to end, the brothers’ attitude toward Josef ranges from outright animosity to ambivalence, yet they overcome their impulse to kill him, and Josef takes their entire history to a new level when he forgives them.

Framed in these terms, as we compare the lack of morality exhibited in the beginning of the book to the end, mankind’s progress becomes apparent; even in this sordid tale, some light shines through. Despite the jealousy and hatred the brothers had for Josef, they do not resort to bloodshed. As is sometimes the case, the moral choice is no more than the lesser of two evils. The sale of Josef is preferable to the murder of Abel at the hands of Cain. Although the progress may seem small, it is progress nonetheless.  The first steps to nationhood are taken when we finally become a united family. Thus, the book of Bereishit ends the story of a family and begins the story of a nation.


The book of Shemot opens with a particularly tender scene: Miriam, Moshe’s older sister, goes to extraordinary lengths to look out for her younger brother. She is unwilling to simply turn her back and walk away as Moshe is placed in an ark and set adrift on the Nile. When her brother is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, Miriam steps in with an offer to help “find” a wet nurse who is willing to care for this infant. Conveniently enough, not only is Moshe temporarily returned to his mother, but she is paid to fulfill her heart’s deepest desire: to nurse and nurture her son. All of this is made possible through Miriam’s love.

As a result of Miriam’s concern for her brother’s welfare, Moshe is returned to his home and family, and in addition to his mother’s milk, he receives a rudimentary Jewish education and a very strong sense of Jewish identity that manifests itself years later: When Moshe leaves the comfort and security of his home in Pharaoh’s palace and goes out to seek his brothers, he witnesses an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Jew.

In a scene so similar to – yet so different from – the Cain and Abel scene, once again a life is taken. This time, it is taken to defend a brother who was being beaten to death, whereas Abel’s death was senseless and morally indefensible, the result of anger and jealousy.

In a very real sense, Moshe’s unique gifts as a leader and savior of the Jewish People shine through in this early scene: He defends the weak, rescues the victim, and takes an unequivocal moral stand. But there is another message in this episode that should not be overlooked: The person Moshe rescued was an anonymous Jew, not only to us but to Moshe as well. This unfortunate slave was, in fact, a stranger to Moshe – but Moshe saw him as a brother. Moshe had gone out in search of his brothers, and he felt an unshakeable sense of kinship and responsibility toward this unnamed Jew – and every other member of his People.

Apparently, the lesson Moshe learned from his sister had sunk in: Never turn your back on a brother or sister. Brothers do not harm one another; they most certainly do not kill one another, nor do they sell their siblings into slavery. Moshe, the beneficiary of his sister Miriam’s love and devotion, in turn seeks out brothers to aid and protect. This is the foundation of Moshe’s identity, and it becomes the cornerstone of his personality as the greatest leader of the Jewish People.

And thus we come to find the first two brothers in the Torah who really, truly, related to one another with love and respect — Moses and his brother Aaron. Throughout the Book of Genesis, we do not find harmony among brothers. The unity of these two brothers, Moses and Aaron, is what enables them to lead the people out of Egypt and to bring them to Mt. Sinai to accept the Torah. In order to leave Egypt the children of Israel had first to become a nation. In order to receive the Torah they needed unity. The core of this unity was the love and mutual respect exhibited between Moses and Aaron. “Each one rejoiced at the other’s greatness.” Each appreciated the greatness and uniqueness of the other as Cain and Abel never did. 

It is one of the profound teachings of Judaism, that not all people are created equal. Each person certainly has an inalienable right to his or her dignity, but not all people possess equal roles and destinies. Man is created in the image of God, which means that each and every human being is unique as well. The challenge of life is to find our uniqueness and develop it, not to define ourselves in comparison with others, but to search within ourselves and find our uniqueness, our image of God. When a person identifies his own uniqueness and develops that uniqueness, he truly manifests the image of God within himself. And then he can love others in the same way. Therein lies the mistake of Cain. He could not see his own uniqueness. He could not appreciate his brother’s uniqueness. He did not know the meaning of brotherhood.

Compiled from articles first published on

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