SIBLING RIVALRY IS MORE THAN KIDS’ STUFF
The Midrash (Rabba 56) provides some of the details missing from the Torah’s account of the Akeidah (the “Binding of Isaac”). Among other things, it tells us just what kind of approach Satan used in trying to trip up Avraham and Yitzchak, and get them to fail the great test G-d was giving them. Satan approached Avraham, and said to him: Grandpa, Grandpa have you gone mad? Are you really going to slaughter the son you have been given at age 100? When Satan saw that Avraham’s resolve was firm, he tried again: Avraham, chances are that G-d will bring you an even greater test than this one, one that you will not be able to pass. Would it not make sense, then, to give in this time for the sake of your son – your entire future – and fail this test? Avraham rejected this as well. He was ready for any test that G-d might send his way. He knew very well that G-d does not throw a pitch that a person cannot hit.
Satan then approached Yitzchak, hoping for better luck: Son of the woman who lived a life without children, your father is going to slaughter you! Yitzchak answered that he is even ready to be slaughtered. Satan then issued the following surprising challenge. If so, all those nice things that your mother made for you will go to none other than your sibling and arch enemy, Yishmael!
How on earth can we understand this? Satan knew who he was up against: Yitzchak, a spiritual giant who was eminently qualified to become the second Patriarch of the Jewish People. And he was no mere child. Yitzchak was now 37 years old! On the verge of being slaughtered, he was a million miles away from concern about Yishmael inheriting some of his personal possessions. We might have expected Satan to try to induce some heretical thoughts, or to shake Yitzchak’s trust in his father Avraham, and encourage him to start a new belief system. Why would an attempt to stir up sibling rivalry be Satan’s first choice? Given Yitzchak’s age and his level of spiritual perfection, he would surely not be persuaded by this nonsense.
Apparently, though, our assumption is incorrect. The Midrash teaches us that sibling rivalry and the fury brought on by jealousy is a real test for even the greatest people. If Satan used this sort of persuasion, it must mean that Satan knew that he had to work fast and effectively. He knew that inducing heretical thoughts or shaking Yitzchak’s trust in Avraham might take time, and would probably never work. On the other hand, no matter what level people achieve, they can be profoundly influenced by the thought of forfeiting something dear – even something of very limited value – to a sibling or colleague. These types of thoughts can become obsessive, and can quickly distort a balanced perspective on reality. It happened to the greatest human beings: Yosef’s brothers, Korach, King Saul, Yeravam – the first king of theCommonwealthofIsrael(the “Ten Tribes”). Successfully overcoming this temptation is what makes people great.
Yitzchak was not the only one to pass this test with flying colors. Aharon the Kohen, Moshe’s brother, merited eternal Priesthood for it. Although Aharon was then the greatest rabbi of the Jews inEgypt, he was not in the least bit fazed when his younger brother Moshe was given the role of leader and savior of the Jewish People, and the “receiver” of the Torah at Sinai. This testified that his heart was pure enough to wear the priestly breastplate.
A close friend related this childhood memory to me – probably his most powerful childhood memory. His father lived a low-key lifestyle, and the latest Nike sneakers were simply not a topic of discussion at home. One day, my friend, a successful student in school, noticed that his younger and far less studious brother was wearing those sneakers. He approached his father and asked for an explanation.
His father, who had built a strong, trusting relationship over years of parenting, explained softly: For your brother, Nike sneakers is a need. For you, it is a just a want. My friend was able to accept this, and never brought up the subject again.
This little story illustrates two principles of good parenting: To determine what each child needs, and build enough trust with each child so that he or she will feel that the parent knows what his/her real needs are; not to put children in situations where jealousy may entice them. Of course, parents must also train children to overcome jealousy on their own. As we see from the Midrash, jealousy is a great test even for the greatest people.
ENHANCING SHALOM BAYIT BY RESPONDING TO A SPOUSE’S EXPECTATIONS
Both bride and groom come into their marriage with all sorts of expectations from one another. If they are not fulfilled – which often happens, of course – distress and aggravation can result. What can be done to ensure shalom bayit (family peace and tranquility), and restore it when it wavers?
More often than not, the answer is: candid discussion and lots of good will. By investing time and effort, we can learn to perceive the bigger picture, and begin to understand the expectations and presuppositions of our spouse. Unfortunately, the young husband and wife are generally reluctant to have such a discussion for fear of letting down their better half. They hope that the spouse’s expectations will somehow be forgotten or wither away. Of course, this never really happens.
Today, it is popular to advise people to scale down or forget about their expectations. It is unpopular for a counselor to advise a struggling couple to try to learn which of the spouse’s expectations could be at least partially fulfilled. Of course, we all have certain wants, needs, and expectations that we do not want to be ignored. But we should not expect our spouse to figure these things out on his/her own. We must articulate them and make sure that we have made ourselves clear. This involves letting our spouse know which needs have more value to us than others.
In short, there are two ingredients needed to avoid misunderstandings which arise from expectations in marriage: trust and clarification. We must learn to trust the man or woman we decided to marry, and believe that our spouse will respect our needs if they are clearly understood. And we are to trust that our spouse will not ask or expect from us something outrageous or unfair.
We can see in our parashah just how basic – and inevitable – expectations are in a marriage. The Torah tells us: Yitzchak brought her to the tent of Sarah; and he married Rivkah. She became his wife, and he loved her. Yitzchak was then consoled after the passing of his mother. (Bereisheet 24:66-7) Why did Yitzchak bring Rivkah specifically to the tent of his mother Sarah? Rashi explains (based on the Midrash) that as long as Sarah lived, the family experienced three special signs of her holiness: a Cloud of Glory above her tent, a blessing in her bread, and a candle that lasted all week long. Upon her passing, these signs disappeared, and for three years Yitzchak struggled to get over the loss of his mother. When Yitzchak married Rivkah and brought her into his mother’s tent, the light and the blessings returned. He saw that she followed in his mother’s ways, and this alone consoled him.
We can see from here the importance of the subconscious expectations that arise in marriage. They are very real. Yitzchak’s happiness was dependent on having a wife who followed in his mother Sarah’s holy ways. This was one of the most important things in Yitzchak’s value system.
Another episode in the parashah testifies to this as well. We read that when Eliezer went to find a wife for Yitzchak, he brought clothes with him as well as jewelry. He gave the clothes to Rivkah just before her parents approved the match. Now, we might well ask, how did Eliezer know the size of the would-be bride? Maybe she would need a size six, maybe she would need a size ten. Maybe she would be tall. Maybe she would need “elevator platform” high heels. As a matter of fact, it turned out that the bride Rivkah was still a child at the time.
The answer is that the clothes were sent as a statement. This is the dress code in the house of Sarah. This is the type of modest clothes we wear. Only a bride who would feel comfortable wearing modest clothes could possibly meet the expectations of Yitzchak.
The model we see in the parashah is no less true today. Consciously or subconsciously, a man expects his wife to do for him more or less what his mother did for his father. And a woman expects that her husband will handle the chores that her father took care of at home. This can sometimes be considered by one party “the bare minimum of responsibility.” Of course, this can sometimes lead to domestic problems: If the husband’s mother took care of the paperwork and bills, and the wife’s father took care of these chores in her home, then they may have difficulty understanding why the bills are never paid. If the wife’s father was the cook and the husband’s mother did not let her husband into the kitchen, then supper may not be ready on time. This, of course, can result in frustration.
As we said at the outset, the “simple” solution is for a spouse to eliminate all of his or her expectations. But this is usually not practical. We are better advised to learn what our spouse expects and needs, and try to oblige as much as possible. (Similarly, wise couples plan how to enhance their shalom bayit, as opposed to planning how not to get into fights.) And both husband and wife must try to communicate their most important needs and expectations clearly.
We can look for inspiration to our great Avot and Imahot: Yitzchak had essentially one requirement for a mate, and he conveyed it clearly: the ability to carry on the environment of holiness which his mother created. Rivkah understood this, and made it her business to oblige.
WAS AVRAHAM AVINU A GOOD BUSINESSMAN WHEN HE WANTED TO BE?
G-d sends us many opportunities for wealth and blessing. Unfortunately, though, we often let them slip through our fingers either because we fail to identify them or because we just don’t know how to handle them. In many business negotiations, for example, if an individual had only conducted himself more appropriately, he could have made the deal successfully.
There are essentially three different ways in which people respond to opportunities of this sort. One of the wrong ways is to overreact, to take big steps into something that is still foggy. By overreacting or responding hastily to apparent opportunities, we might make a lot of money, but the chances are even higher that we might never see any of our money again. Then there is the personality who under-reacts to opportunities, taking a lot of time in the decision-making process, and not taking any steps at all unless the opportunity has a 150% chance of gain and 0% chance of loss. This person never makes a profit unless G-d forces it on him. The third and the most advisable response is to take a step where we can see the next step ahead – without taking heavy risks. In other words: to respond with caution.
If we pay close attention, we can see that our holy Patriarch, Avraham Avinu, conducted himself prudently – in the third way described above – when he sought to acquire the Ma’arat HaMachpelah as a family burial site. The Midrash tells us how Avraham came to want this particular location. After Avraham asked his ninety year-old wife Sarah to make cakes for the three angelic guests who stopped at their home, a miracle happened and Sarah suddenly got her period back while baking. At this point, Avraham decided to take over the preparations in the kitchen, and serve tongue to the guests. But one of calves ran away, and Avraham was forced to chase after it (at the age of 100, during a heat wave, and three days after his circumcision!). The calf ran into a cave. This cave turned out to be the Ma’arat HaMachpelah on the property of Efron, where Adam and Chavah (Eve) were buried! Efron had no idea that they were buried on his land. Upon entering the cave, which was lit up and had the fragrance of Gan Eden, Avraham was shocked not only to discover Adam and Chavah, but to experience some kind of communication with Adam. He was told that humanity merited existence only in Avraham’s merit. At that moment, Avraham developed a great desire to be buried in the cave. And the Midrash tells us how he made sure to get it.
First, Avraham was careful to say nothing for forty years until he actually needed the cave as a burial place for his wife, Sarah. He realized that if Efron knew what Avraham knew, he would never give up the cave. He could not say a word to anyone at the moment, and he could not buy the cave then and there because it might make Efon’s suspicious that the cave was especially valuable – at least to Avraham. Instead, Avraham waited many years until he needed the cave before approaching Efron in order that he should look nonchalant. Although it is silly for a person to reveal information that can harm himself, people do it all the time, thus ruining lots of opportunities. Had they been more cautious, they could have been in a much better position to negotiate in the future.
The Midrash tells us Avraham’s next prudent move was to first approach the Hittites (Bnei Chet) and tell them that he would like to buy a grave in their vicinity in order to be among them. They responded that they respected him as a nasi (chief), and they were at his service. The Midrash derives that Avraham decided to approach them in a way that did not make it look like he felt more special than them in any way. Now, we all know that Avraham actually felt this way always, and he considered himself as humble as sand and ashes. This was not a business front. Why, then, does the Midrash find in his humble behavior a wise negotiating technique as well?
I think the answer is this: In business, one often encounters an individual who has his nose up in the air, who is unwilling to look down and go into the details of a business deal. Although it is hard to get into a negotiation with such a person, once he needs you – or at least thinks he needs you – you have a great advantage over him. He will not look at little details, and will usually overlook his best interests. At times he will feel that it is below his dignity not to come through with the deal if it is posed as an opportunity fit for elite business people. For this reason, Avraham was careful that the Hittites not think that he had his nose up in the air, and try to take advantage of him. He wanted to protect himself – and keep them from acting inappropriately as well.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF REUVEN BEN SARA AND CHANA BAT HENYA
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