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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Rosh Hashanah - 1st Day - 2011/5772


As many of you know, our Rabbinic Scholar-in-Residence, Rabbi Herman Schaalman, suffered a stroke last month.  I initially doubted that he would be joining us this year—until I saw him in Chicago Labor Day weekend.  At the Rehab Institute, he was already up and about—planning on teaching his course at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston a week later.  I had always marveled at the strength and vigor and courage and wisdom of this man who first became my teacher when I was a student at Beloit College back in the early 1970s.  Even at the age of 95, weeks after the stroke, he decided not only that he wanted to be with us but that he could be with us.  And all was fine until the end of last week when his beloved Lotte fell and broke her hip.  I am thrilled to tell you that she came through surgery with flying colors—and has already been up and walking.  But Rabbi Schaalman made the right decision to be with Lotte rather than with us this Rosh Hashanah.  They send their greetings to us and we pray for a refuah shleimah for them, for a new year filled with sweetness and joy and renewed health.  And we look forward to welcoming them back to their home away from home.

It was a rare moment for me this summer on vacation.  Our three adult children chose to join us at a cabin not far from Traverse City, Michigan, where we had spent many summer weeks over the years.  A rare treat—for sure—made even more special by the fact that we could enjoy a relaxing Shabbat dinner overlooking Lake Ann as the sun set.  The candles had been lit and, once again, I had the opportunity to ask God’s blessings upon my children.  The words could be your own–but our tradition offers us words, words special just to that moment on Shabbat and festival evenings, yet also words which go back to our birth as a people, words we share at all our Shabbat and festival dinners here at the synagogue, words which still resonate every time I share them. 

Upon my daughters, I invoke the examples of our matriarchs–“Yesimech Elohim k’Sarah, Rivka, Rahel, v’Leah.  May God make you like Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel.”  Upon my son, I turn to Jacob’s grandchildren–“Yesimha Elohim k’Efraim v’cheMenasseh.  May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”   And then, upon daughters and son alike, we ask God’s blessings in the words of Birchat Cohanim, in the words of the Priestly Blessing–Yevarechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha–May the Eternal bless you and keep you; Ya’er Adonai panav eylecha vichuneka–May the Eternal deal kindly with you and be gracious unto you; Yisa Adonai panav eylecha veyasem lecha shalom–May the Eternal’s countenance shine upon you and grant you peace.” 

But as such moments grow rarer, all kinds of memories accumulate.  And I remember my earlier theological questioning of the blessing.  Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel–they all made sense when picking female Biblical role models.  They are our matriarchs–the beautiful and brave Sarah, the bright and loving Rebekah, the sensitive Leah and the patient Rachel.   One would expect some parallelism and some equality, then, for the males–perhaps our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Or maybe even Moses and Joshua.  But why, oh why, Ephraim and Manasseh, the not-particularly remarkable sons of Joseph?

So my memories go back some fifteen years, when my kids were still young and they were still blessed with grandparents.  I am running to the University of Chicago Hospital.  My father is ill. Between the University of Chicago and the hospital out in Michigan City, many weeks pass before he returns home, as exhausted by the aggressive treatment he is receiving as he is by the cancer which is slowly consuming him.  And so I go to be with him at home in Michigan City.  I should, of course, be concerned with his welfare and am–until I see the ventilator hood over the stove with the four magnets upon it.  As I casually walk through the kitchen, I note the magnets are name magnets and I note the names–my two sisters’, my brother’s…and my brother’s-in-law.  Every hurt and pain, every slight and snub from childhood on rushes back into memory.  And no matter how adult I am–’tis amazing how quickly the junk from childhood reduces me to a child again.  Add my adult siblings to the mix–in the house in which we all grew up–and you can only begin to imagine all the strange things which take place.

Sibling rivalry–I am sure each of you can describe it vividly.  If you, yourself, are not a sibling, your spouse is or your children are or your aunts and uncles are.  Take three tales–each more vivid than the other, each coming from a different stage in life, each so very true in the specific and in general.  The first is an actual dialogue between, or, more accurately, monologue from, a young girl to her younger sister, recorded as follows by their mother at the breakfast table:  “I’m glad I’m not sitting near you.  You smell.  Daddy likes me better than he likes you.  You’re ugly.  You don’t know the alphabet.  You need Mommy to tie your shoelaces.  I’m prettier than you.”

The years pass.  Francine Klagsbrun, in her fascinating study of sibling rivalry entitled Mixed Feelings:  Love, Hate, Rivalry and Reconciliation among Brothers and Sisters, describes an exchange between a 70-year-old mother and her 44-year-old daughter about her 39-year-old sister.  The mother, of course, is concerned for her younger and weaker daughter who has been a drifter and remains what she calls a “flower child” but has faith that her older daughter will be just fine.  But the older daughter feels ignored, surely less favored.

“Tina never got the warmth from you that she wanted,” the mother says reproachfully. “She worshipped you, she imitated you, she followed you, and she didn’t get the warmth from you.”

“Well, she certainly got it from you,” the daughter answers sarcastically.

“She could never do things right,” the mothers continues.  “You, you excelled at everything….But she was shy and clumsy.  She couldn’t…”

“Are you still supporting her?” the daughter cuts in.

“We send her some money, and she picks up odd jobs here and there.  She lives from hand to mouth.  She has no relationships.”

“She has a million people in her life.  Did it ever occur to you that she wants to live the way she does, with no responsibilities and you are there with money and food.”

“Daddy grieves about her so much,” the mother pushes on.  “She’s so wounded.  He cares about her more than about anything.”

“Yeah,” the daughter replies, “And where do I fit into this picture?  I have no sense from either of you of your ever caring about anything I’ve done.”

“Oh,” the mother answers hurriedly, “you don’t know what I say to others.”

“I don’t care what you say to others.” The daughter is shouting now.  “I never get a feeling that you have any pride in what I do or who I am.  All you ever do is sigh about Tina and tell me I should have been warmer to her.”

Her mother sighs.  “I know.  But her life has been so hard.”

The years pass.  Rabbi Harold Kushner relates the story of two elderly brothers who had an argument and then spent 20 years not speaking to each other.  When one died, the other broke down and sighed, “Now I don’t have Sam not to talk to any more.”

Still, for all the power and pain of our sibling relationships, it has only been in recent decades that mental health professionals have truly examined the bonds the bind and burn.  Psychoanalyst Peter B. Neubauer links sibling rivalry to the root of the word rival, from the Latin rivalis or rivus, meaning brook.  He writes, “A rival originally meant someone using the same river or stream as another person.  It refers to fighting among early tribes for access to the river–who can go to the river and get the water, who will be the survivor, who has the advantage.  In our terms the river is the mother who supplies our basic needs, and the children compete for access to her.”  Parents are the source of all nourishment, physical and emotional.  Children want to hold onto that source exclusively, afraid that in letting go of any part they will lose out on all.  And the mere existence of another child in the family can symbolize less.  Even when parents are old or dead, their children, the siblings, may continue to vie through deeds and achievements to be the “best child.” 

In other words, most experts feel that at the root of sibling rivalry is each child’s deep desire for the exclusive love of his or her parents and the parents’ inability to project that love fairly and in equally unique ways.  To quote my former in-house expert and prime victim as middle child, “sibling rivalry is when my brother or sister gets more ___________ (fill in the blank–trips, treats, presents, love) than I do”. 

There are, of course, many other factors involved in the development of sibling rivalry.  The experts cite birth order and timing in parents’ lives; inherent temperament and talents; age spacing and, yes, gender.  Even today, male children seem to be preferred, not just in certain foreign lands but right here in America.  I still see it in the Jewish population in the preference for Bar Mitzvah over Bat Mitzvah and in welcoming infant boys into the covenant through brit ceremonies and not infant girls.  Yet the bottom line factor remains parental favoritism.  In the immortal words of Tommy Smothers to his brother, Dickie, “Mom always liked you best.”

Still, long before the modern experts in psychology and psychoanalysis and psychiatry, long before social workers and family therapists and pastoral counselors, the binding power and the burning pain of sibling relationships were clearly understood.  Take the story we read today, the akedah, the binding of Isaac.  For all of our justified tension about Abraham’s actions, understand that the akedah is also a story of sibling rivalry.  Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, had brought him such joy.  Yet Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, had come to Abraham by way of Sarah.  Sarah, unable to conceive, urged Abraham to have a child through her handmaiden, through Hagar.  Then, thirteen years later, as Sarah miraculously expects a child, the family dynamic changes.  Isaac is born and Ishmael loses his favored position.  Eventually, Ishmael, the now older brother, would forever be sent away.  Yet, before his departure, the brothers engage in, you guessed it, sibling rivalry.  In fact, according to medieval commentator Rashi, it was sibling rivalry which motivated the akedah.  For why else would the story begin with the Hebrew words, “vayehi ahar ha-devarim ha-elleh”?  In spite of the more recent translation as read by Barbara and Randy     this morning, the words literally mean “And it came to pass after these words.”  What words?  The words used by Ishmael to tease his kid brother, Isaac, that he, Ishmael, was braver for he had been willingly circumcised at the age of thirteen while Isaac had been circumcised as an infant at eight days.  By so doing, Ishmael was trying to show how much dearer he was to his father, to Abraham, and to the Parent of all, to God.  Responded an upset Isaac, “You intimidate me by boasting about your sacrifice of one part of your body.  Well, if God were to tell me to sacrifice myself, to offer my whole being and not just a little part of me even though I am now 37 years old, I would not refuse!”  Thus–the akedah– motivated by an act of sibling rivalry.

Yet more.  For what else is Bereshit, what else is the whole book of Genesis, than a book of sibling rivalries taken to the extreme.  Isaac and Ishmael.  Isaac’s twin sons–Jacob and Esau.  Their whole story is one of sibling rivalry.  Jacob earns his name, Ya’akov, by holding on to Esau’s heal trying to pull him back into the womb as they emerge at birth, even then trying to become the first-born.  Jacob acquires the birthright in exchange for some red stew.  Then, with his mother’s help, he successfully disguises himself as his brother to gain his father’s blessing as Isaac is about to die.  Returning from the field, Esau discovers what has occurred and cries out–in pain we can feel so profoundly today–“Bless me too, father!”  Isaac, not sharing the full story, responds, “Your brother came with guile and took away your blessing.”  Replies Esau, “That is why he is named Jacob, for he supplanted me these two times.  First, he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!  Didn’t you save a blessing for me?  Have you but one blessing, father?  Bless me too, father.”  And, Esau’s words echo each time one of our children cries out, “What about me, Dad?  Don’t you also have time for me?”

Jacob flees his tormented brother and falls in love with Rachel.  Yet Rachel also has a sibling, an older sister named Leah.  For years, they will rival each other for the love of Jacob, the beautiful Rachel always Jacob’s favorite.  Then, in the words of Torah as taught (ahem) by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber, Jacob sings out accompanied by his sons and the narrator: 

Joseph’s mother, she was quite my favorite wife
I never really loved another all my life
And Joseph was my joy because
He reminded me of her
Through young Joseph, Jacob lived his youth again
Loved him, praised him, gave him all he could, but then
It made the rest feel second best
And even if they were–
Being told we’re also-rans
Does not make us Joseph fans.

And you know the rest of the story.

Yet Bereshit contains one more story of sibling rivalry, in fact, the first story of sibling rivalry, the story of Cain and Abel.  Cain is a tiller of the soil, a farmer; Abel, a keeper of sheep, a shepherd. But do not see the story as one reflecting the eternal tensions between farmers and shepherds; the story is so much more.  Cain is moved to offer some kind of gift to God in recognition of God’s help in bringing forth fruit from the earth.  Gathering some fruit and vegetables, he offers them to God.  Abel decides to imitate his brother but also chooses to offer the best of his flock to God.  God then pays attention only to Abel’s offering leaving Cain devastated.  Distant from us, you think?  Listen to Rabbi Norman Cohen, emeritus professor of Midrash at the Hebrew Union College in New York, in terms of his own children.  It was years ago—but the power and pain remain so vivid.  His then seven-year-old son had given him a birthday present in a plain envelope and exclaimed, “Here’s your present, Dad.  I couldn’t think of anything to get you, so I’m giving you the money I saved.”  Finding $5.00 of his allowance inside, Rabbi Cohen responded, “Ilan, it isn’t appropriate for a child to give his parent money as a birthday present.”  As Ilan walked away with tears rolling down his face, his sister rushed to her room to return moments later with a picture she said she drew in art class for him.  He kissed her and told her how thrilled he was.  Imagine the devastation his son felt.  Perhaps, like Cain, all he wanted to do was express his affection for his father in his own way.

But the story is not yet over.  God counsels the angry and devastated Cain patience and warns him of sin.  But instead of taking his anger out on God, Cain strikes out against his brother, killing him.  He tries, at first, to deny what he has done, crying “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Yet, finally, Cain acknowledges his sin in verses containing the first mention of sin in the Torah. 

Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests that we should recognize this story for what it is–the all-too-familiar, “I hate you.  I wish you were dead, because Daddy and Mommy love you more than they love me.”  Children, so dependent upon their parents’ love, find it easier to be angry at their siblings for being favored than at their parents for playing favorites.  And Kushner calls this first sin the Original Sin, the belief that there is simply not enough love to go around.  One of our earliest stories, telling us what it took therapists thousands of years to understand.

That, I learned many years ago, is why we invoke the names of Ephraim and Manasseh!  While one tradition tells us it is because these two sons of Joseph and grandsons of Jacob maintained their Jewish identities while growing up in Egyptian aristocracy, a far more important lesson suddenly becomes so very clear.  Jacob is near his death and Joseph brings his two sons to him for a blessing, placing the older Manasseh to his father’s right for the primary blessing and the younger Ephraim to his father’s left.  But as he puts his hands out to bestow the blessing upon his grandsons, Jacob crosses them, putting his left hand on Manasseh’s head and his right hand on Ephraim’s.  Joseph tries to correct his father to ensure that the eldest receive the primary blessing with the loving touch of Jacob’s right hand.  But Jacob strongly resists.  And only then does Joseph understand. For Jacob blesses both Manasseh and Ephraim together at the same time and with the same words.  Notes Rabbi Cohen, “Neither was exalted over the other; they were to share one blessing and they would no longer have to wrestle with each other.”  And their gift to us–that as we parents bless our children, they stand together as equals.  Know that Ephraim and Manasseh were to live on to become the first siblings in our tradition to dwell together in peace with one another, the only siblings also to be blessed with the unconditional love of a grandparent. The book which began with the first sin ends with the first total reconciliation.

Love, offers Rabbi Kushner, is not like a bank account that is depleted when it is given away.  It is rather like a muscle–the more it is exercised, the more it can be used.  And the gift of that blessing–especially for parents with small children–can help to bridge the gap between you and your children, between your children, and between us and the One we call Avinu, the One we call our Parent.

Try doing it this Shabbat at home.  What more appropriate time to begin than Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance and Return, the Sabbath which falls during these Yamim Nora’im, during these Days of Awe tomorrow night.  It will feel strange at first–both to those of you as parents and to those of you as children.  But then you will do it again as Yom Kipper begins and then yet again and again.  After a while, it will feel strange if you do not do it.  And I assure you, from experience, that even when your kids grow up, when they come home, they will want their blessing–and there will be more than enough love to go around

Still, what of us, so many of us who are siblings of a certain age no longer living with our brothers and sisters?  How distant is that distance?  How long has it been since we have spoken with them?  Or do we wonder if we will ever speak with them again?  The pain goes so deep–as does the potential.  My father’s father and his four brothers were once peddlers.  Successful, they decided to sell their shmattes from a fixed location developing a flourishing school supply operation called Berkson Brothers at 63rd and Halsted in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago.  But the business lasted longer than the brothers’ relationship; the brothers split up over certain business disagreements almost never to talk with each other again.  From generation to generation, in my family as in so many of your families as in the families in Genesis, from Cain and Abel to Isaac and Ishmael to Rachel and Leah to Jacob and Esau to Joseph and his brothers, the distance and the pain only grow; they even pattern our behavior.

Months passed.  I return to my mother’s having never uttered one word about those magnets (even if my behavior screamed volumes).  As I enter the house, I walk straight to the ventilator hood over the stove–two names have been added.  Years pass—and my now grown children gather around the Shabbat table.  Trust me, they still play out their sibling stuff with the oldest and middle and youngest each taking what appears to be clearly scripted roles.  And, yes, they often insist on being right—when they are wrong.  But they get along.  “History,” wrote child psychologist Selma Fraiberg, “is not destiny.”  As Genesis ends, a similar message.  Jacob’s children unite in family and, as Devora Steinmetz observes, become the first family in the book to remain together. 

In nine more days, it will be Yom Kippur.  It is our most awesome day, a day which tells us that our history can be reversed, a day which tells us that we can retrace our steps and change our patterns and forgive and be forgiven.  True, we have lots of hard work ahead of us.  But perhaps a blessing may help. 

Your children, your siblings, await.  With time–and with lots of practice–you will find more than enough love to go around.

Sat, February 24 2024 15 Adar I 5784