The Torah is full of stories of sibling rivalry, of brothers fighting brothers. It started with Cain and Abel and it continued on through Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau and Jacob’s twelve sons. The splits amongst the tribes continued. During the period of the Judges tribes competed with tribes, sometimes killing each other, as in the case of Yiftah (Jephthah) and the tribe of Ephraim (Judges 12) or the civil war against the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 17). After Solomon we had two kingdoms, Judah with Benjamin against Yosef and the 10 Northern tribes. They often fought and killed each other.
However, divided we are today, it is nothing compared to then. Exile brought the tribes together in Babylon but after the return the divisions were between the Priesthood, the Sadducees and the rest of the population. Hanukah, which we celebrate this week, was a conflict that rally came about only because we were divided against ourselves into warring camps, the aristocratic priestly caste which was pro Greek and the popular Rabbinic Nationalists.
Is the Torah trying to tell us that rivalry is inevitable but that we must learn how to control it so that it doesn’t get out of hand? Perhaps the wider message is that human beings are intrinsically competitive, perhaps it’s the animal instinct within us that everyone wants to be the Alpha Male. Maybe we need that drive to survive and succeed. But if we let it get out of hand it can cause suffering and disaster. Every human quality can be used for good and for evil. That’s why we need to be reminded constantly of our religious values and to be reined in a little so as to use our energy productively.
But this week’s Torah suggests another explanation. We make terrible mistakes, not always intentionally, but the consequences can be cataclysmic. We know that Jacob favored Rachel over Leah and this led to competition, anger, envy, sadness which inevitably must have been transmitted to their children.
When Jacob prepares the wives and children to face Esau he puts the children of the concubines in the front, followed by the children of Leah, followed by Rachel’s Joseph. As Jacob said, if “Esau kills the first ranks, at least the last one will be spared.” This expression of priority must have affected the brothers, in effect to be told that they were less important, their lives mattered less. No wonder there was so much ill feeling and tension. Parents should be very careful about the messages they give.