When we’re suffering through a pandemic, we typically celebrate Pesach with our closest biological family members: parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and brothers and sisters. We read our assigned parts in the Haggadah, and we often play our throwback family roles. Regardless of age, we can find ourselves transported back to the time when we were childhood siblings. The Seder triggers youthful memories of unconditional love and unresolved rivalries, and we find ourselves unintentionally replaying old family dramas. We know factually that Miryam, Aharon, and Moshe were siblings, but it takes reflection and imagination to reconstruct their sibling relationships. It’s a worthwhile effort, as they succeed in doing what previous Biblical siblings could not. They rejoiced in each other’s successes and, through that rejoicing, were able to lead the Jewish people to redemption.
Think about the siblings who preceded them. The word “fratricide” emerged from the first recorded sibling relationship between Cain and Abel. Fast forward to Isaac and Ishmael, who suffered from a parent-induced rivalry. We’re introduced to a double set of rivalries in the next generation: Jacob and Esau and Leah and Rachel. Leah and Rachel’s sororal rivalry spills into the next generation and culminates in a conflict between Joseph and his brothers. (There are other muted fraternal conflicts; for example, Shimon and Levi stand apart from their brothers, as well as the children of Rachel and Leah’s concubines.) This double-barrel rivalry almost destroys Jacob’s family, but Joseph and his brothers eventually reconcile. However, reconciliation is not the same as unconditional love, and Joseph’s brothers still feel that Joseph will take revenge once their father dies.
Aharon, Miryam, and Moshe are different and exhibit brotherly and sisterly love from their childhood’s earliest recorded days. Miryam saves Moshe from drowning in the Nile and engineers a plot that places Moshe in the hands of Pharoah’s daughter, his adoptive mother. Decades later, when the Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds, Miryam rejoices with Moshe in their remarkable deliverance. And Aharon? He exhibits no jealousy when Moshe, the younger sibling, is appointed to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. The Torah explicitly states that Aharon rejoices when he reunites with Moshe and is content to play the spokesperson’s role for Moshe when confronting Pharaoh (Exodus 10:9). Later, Moshe, the younger son, initiates Aharon and his sons into the priesthood, a permanently off-limits role to Moshe and his children. Moshe loves his older brother so much that he even forgives Aharon’s egregious failure of leadership in the incident of the Golden calf. When in a rare moment of sibling rivalry, Miryam is punished with leprosy, Moshe is aggrieved and prays for her healing. Like all siblings, Miryam, Aharon, and Moshe have their disagreements, but their unconditional love overrides their rivalries.
The pandemic has given us much time to reflect on the significance of our relationships. I’ve missed visiting my parents, sisters, and brothers-in-law. When we were young, my parents’ refrain to my three sisters and me was that we needed to be close to each other because we were family, and that’s what family does. We heard this refrain, especially after a sibling feud. Over the decades, we’ve come to value their wisdom in instilling this mantra in us, and we’ve done our best to embed the same message in children’s value set. Whatever jealousies we had when we were young lost their sting long ago, and we’re grateful that we now laugh about them. I’ve also realized that healthy sibling relationships are the crucible through which I’ve forged deep friendships and learned to call several friends “the brothers that I never had.”
The night of redemption occurred one family at a time, but the Exodus was a collective event. Paraphrasing Exodus 10:9, young and old, sons and daughters, and flocks and herds were ordered to leave at once. I believe the Exodus was successful because individual members of each Israelite household figuratively embraced each other as brothers and sisters. They set aside family and tribal rivalries and helped each other gather their loved ones and belongings. How else could they have mobilized so rapidly and seized their long-awaited dream? In reconstructing Miryam, Aharon, and Moshe’s relationships, we learn that siblings can transcend their rivalries and rejoice in each other’s accomplishments. In light of the pandemic, I offer these four questions:
- If we’re already close with our siblings, how can we celebrate and deepen those connections?
- If we’re distant, can we take an incremental step to try and become closer?
- Do we have friends whom we consider as “sisters” and “brothers?” When was the last time we shared how significant they are in our lives?
- Can we maintain our principles andbe friends with principled people who held the other convictions?
(And two bonus questions if you want to extend your Seder:
- Can Israelis see more of what they share and avoid a fifth election?
- Can U.S. citizens recognize the folly of attacking each other with weapons instead of debating each other with words?)
When siblings transcend rivalries and rejoice in each other’s being, they experience personal liberation from emotionally damaging memories. When we embrace those who aren’t related to us as our figurative “brothers” and “sisters,” we redeem ourselves collectively from toxic and destructive hatred that incapacitates our home, our people, and our communities. Look at the damage that we’ve inflicted on our communities by elevating differences over similarities. Don’t you believe that we can choose a better way forward? These are some of the questions that I’m asking for my spiritual preparation for Pesach, and I hope you’ll find value in raising them at your Seder table.