Throughout the book of Genesis, brothers are fighting brothers. At the same time, there are barely concealed lessons on how the fratricide is going to cease. By the time Exodus begins, the Israelites have learned those lessons. Have we?
Sibling conflict is as old as the world. Cain kills Abel. The birth of Isaac leads to the expulsion of Ishmael. Esau loses his birthright to his younger brother, Jacob, and Jacob has to flee Esau for his life. He goes to the home of his mother's brother, Laban, who treats him like a brother: that is, cheats and exploits him. Ten of Jacob's sons sell their brother Joseph into slavery in Egypt. It seems as if this cycle of family violence will never end.
Yet along the way, we see brothers coming together when they share a concern for someone other than themselves. At first, it is their father. Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father Abraham.
And Rabbi Jonathan Kligler comes up with a beautiful midrash to say that burying their father let Isaac and Ishmael reconcile. (May this be a model for their descendants in Israel and Palestine!)
Similarly, the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Menasheh, could have been at war with each other over their grandfather Jacob's blessing. Jacob, a younger son himself, gives his best blessing to the younger son Ephraim. He does bless both of them, however, without hesitation or reservation. They, too, come together for the funeral of their father, Joseph. And they stay together. Even though (or because?) the two half-tribes are allotted separate territory in Canaan, they remain the tribe of Joseph.
Look now at the book of Exodus, which we are reading from January through mid-March 2013. Moses is a younger son, raised in luxury in the Egyptian court, while Aaron, his older brother, is an Israelite slave oppressed by the Pharaoh. Moses returns to his family and his people with a message from God--which he stutters too much to deliver by himself. He needs Aaron.
And Aaron steps in. Until his death, Aaron speaks for Moses and acts in concert with him. Certainly, Aaron and their sister Miriam (a leader and prophet in her own right) sometimes argue with Moses, but only about whether he is leading well, not about whether or not he should lead. The project of making the Jews ready to receive the Torah and to live by it was bigger than any sibling rivalry. It still is, today. Jews need to remember that, and all people can take a lesson about how to turn brotherly hate into brotherly love.
This blog entry is dedicated to my brothers Gary Fischman, Joel Fischman, and Ron Fischman, my sister Yael Fischman, and my brother-in-law Jonathan Charry.