My Brother’s [and Sister’s] Keeper
The Enduring Effect of Sibling Bonds, Sibling Love, and Sibling Death
The literature on sibling relationships shows that during middle age and old age, indicators of well-being—mood, health, morale, stress, depression, loneliness, life satisfaction—are tied to how you feel about your brothers and sisters. In one Swedish study, satisfaction with sibling contact in one’s 80s was closely correlated with health and positive mood—more so than was satisfaction with friendships or relationships with adult children. And loneliness was eased for older people in a supportive relationship with their siblings, no matter whether they gave or got support.
—Robin Marantz Henig, “Your Adult Siblings May Be The Secret To A Long, Happy Life,” NPR (website), November 2014
The powerhouse sibling triumvirate of Aaron, Miriam, and Moses figures prominently from the beginning of Exodus all the way through this week’s parashah, where we read about the deaths of Moses’s illustrious brother and sister. In the hurly-burly of the exodus and wilderness narratives we may be tempted to overlook the evolving portrayal of the sibling relationship dynamics among these pivotal family members. Yet who would deny that Moses’s roles as prophet, teacher, judge, and right-hand man to God would have been unimaginable without the support of, collaboration with, and challenges posed by his older brother and sister?
From a psychological perspective, this week’s parashah further underscores, if indirectly, the effect of this tight sibling bond, through the response of the people to the deaths of Aaron and Miriam. In so doing, the Torah invites its readers to contemplate the crucial nature that sibling relationships occupy—certainly within the intimacy of families, but also in the ways these relationships often reverberate beyond the family nest.
The Torah never suppresses or ignores the tensions among Aaron, Miriam, and Moses. But these difficulties were overcome, and in the long arc of their lives together, they displayed an admirable degree of closeness, collaboration, and connection. The bonds that Aaron, Miriam, and Moses forged with each other offer us a way of thinking about the significance of generational legacy in Judaism, expanding the concept beyond that which gets transmitted from parent to child across a generational divide, to that which moves from sibling to sibling within the same generation.