The Challenge of Sibling Rivalry

At this time last year, my wife was pregnant with twin boys.  This made reading the stories of Yakov and Eisav an interesting experience for us. I can remember feeling both excitement and anxiety.  We were excited about the double blessing twins might bring to our family, while simultaneously anxious about whether they would get along or instead take after their ancestors, Yakov and Eisav.

Yet when reading this week’s parsha, it is hard to believe that Yakov and Eisav are even brothers let alone twins. They appear so different from each other. Yakov spends his time tending to the flock and dwelling in tents, whereas Eisav is out hunting in the fields. Yakov uses his intellect while Eisav utilizes his physicality.

Even more astonishing, however, is an idea offered by Rabbi Sampson Rafael Hirsch. As Rivkah reached the end of her pregnancy, he claims that she gained a new insight into her twin boys. Commenting on (Bereshit 25:24), “As her pregnancy reached its fullness, (v’hinei) behold, there were twins in her womb” he notes:

Hinei (behold) must be introducing something unexpected… After she had been told of the contrasting difference between the expected children, one would have thought that they would be non-identical twins. The surprising thing was that they were really identical twins.

At first glance, Rabbi Hirsch’s interpretation appears ludicrous. How is it possible that Yakov Eisav could be identical twins when they are outwardly so different from each other? Eisav is red and hairy while Yakov was smaller and pale. Unfortunately, I discovered the answer to this question in the doctor’s office after one of my wife’s ultrasounds. We were informed that our twin boys had developed a rare condition known as Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome or TTTS. Our twins, which were identical, shared one placenta and therefore had interconnected blood circulation. TTTS occurs when one twin draws more blood through the placenta than needed. After birth, the recipient twin tends be larger, heavier, and have a ruddy look because of the excess of red blood cells. The donor twin, on the other hand, is often smaller and can be less physically developed due to the lack of blood it received during pregnancy. After hearing the news, my mind immediately turned to the story of Yakov and Eisav concluding that perhaps they too had been not fraternal twins but in fact identical twins.

If this is indeed the case then it may be the key to understanding the conflict between the brothers. While siblings fight throughout Bereshit, the tension between Yakov and Eisav is particularly intense. Based on the social theories of Renee Girard, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that:

Violence is born in what he called mimetic desire (from mimesis meaning imitation). Mimetic desire is wanting what someone else has because they have it. This is behavior we often see in children. When one child is given a new toy, the others suddenly discover that they want it. They may have never wanted it before, but they do now because someone else has it. Mimetic desire is not just wanting to have what someone else has. Ultimately it is wanting to be what someone else is… Often it leads to violence, because if I want what you have, sooner or later we will fight. Girard then suggested that one of the prime sources of strife is not between father and son but between brothers: sibling rivalry.” (Not in God’s Name, p. 87)

As a father of three young boys, it is easy for me to relate to this argument. Every time one of my sons perceives that the other has something that they themselves lack, there is immediate conflict. Soon enough, jealousy turns to anger and then the fighting begins. Rabbis Sacks explains that the same is true in the case of Yakov and Eisav. Yakov wants what Eisav has. He wants his power and his strength. If Yakov is Eisav’s identical twin, then by all rights, he deserves these things too. It just happens that he was robbed of them by a rare medical condition. Yakov’s desire to be like Eisav culminates in the wearing of animal skins to trick his father into giving him the birthright. Later in his life when Yakov wrestles with an angel on the night before reencountering his brother, he is in actuality wrestling with the existential question of what kind of man he will be. Will he continue to be jealous of the gifts that Eisav received instead of him, or will he choose to become his own person? Only by affirming his inherent uniqueness can he finally reconcile with his brother.

When my wife was pregnant with identical twin boys, we spent a lot of time imagining what it would be like for them as they grew up. Identical twins are well known for staying to themselves and sometimes find it challenging to find their own independent identities and make relationships with other children. We felt it was extremely important that no matter how close they might be, each would develop their own personalities.

Unlike Yakov and Eisav, God did not see to it that our twins would survive TTTS. Due to significant complications, they were born premature and lived only for a short time. We still struggle with the loss, and every time we encounter identical twins, we feel more than a little longing for what could have been. On most Shabbat afternoons, our oldest son plays with a set of identical twin boys that live in our neighborhood. They come to our house, and we see them fight as all brothers do.  Yet we also see them carry on beautifully, each one with their own sense of who they are.

There is no question that Bereshit is about sibling rivalry and the ways in which it can mutate into violence. But it is also about the possibility for brothers to come together even after years of conflict. Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yakov and Eisav, Yosef and his brothers- they all come together in order to bury their fathers. We know that their reconciliation is fragile and imperfect, but nonetheless it is real. Sometimes, this can only be achieved later in life when we are a little wiser and more secure in who we are, but the possibility always remains open to us.

Rabbi Sacks says it so elegantly:

Sibling rivalry is defeated the moment we discover that we are loved by God for what we are, not for what something else is. We each have our own blessing. Brothers need not conflict. Sibling rivalry is not fate but tragic error. As a young man… Jacob wanted to be what he is not. Alone at night, wrestling with the angel, he discovered the rivalry-dissolving truth that it is for what we are uniquely that we are loved.” (Not in God’s Name, p. 141)

Even though my sons constantly bicker and argue, I remain confident that they will grow to deeply care for one another. My wife and I will do our best to make sure they know they are loved and that each of them is capable of finding their unique path in life.

About the Author
Rabbi Zachary Truboff recently made aliyah and moved with his family to Jerusalem. He is the director of the English speaking program at Bina L'Itim, a project of Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak and an educator for the Hartman Institute. For nearly a decade, he served as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Syagogue in Cleveland, OH. He is an officer of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He has a passion for using Jewish texts and ideas along with contemporary thought to address important issues of the day.
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