As my rabbinate has taken me from city to city and time zone to time zone, I’ve left dear friends behind in places I seldom visit anymore. Occasionally we have a nice long chat on the phone. Or they send an e-card, like the modernists they are, and I respond with a paper card, like the Luddite I am. Once they were at the center of my life, now they’re at the periphery.
Luckily, I have two brothers and a sister, people I actually see in the flesh with some regularity, on holidays or at family milestones. The four of us didn’t always get along, back when the discrepancy of our ages mattered more, or angling for our parents’ attention loomed larger. Later in life, that stuff isn’t so important.
We’re in four separate states now, and that’s a plus — it’s harder to fight. These days I feel free to tell them all my nutty ideas and embarrassing problems because they’re stuck with me for life. Come what may, I’m their big brother.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses relies on his big brother Aaron in his greatest crisis, the confrontation with Pharaoh. They go to the palace together, with the magic staff they apparently share, and threaten Pharaoh by turning the staff into a snake (Exodus 7:1-10). This is the same staff that will later part the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16) and produce water from a rock (Exodus 17:5-6). I used to tell our Sunday school kids that Moses has a “Swiss army staff,” but I’m not sure they got the joke. Now I tell them the staff has a lot of different apps on it. See, I’m not such a Luddite after all.
Siblings squabble, especially when adults are watching; siblings try to humiliate each other. I used to pick on Henry till he cried. Sometimes my parents would ask how the fight started, and scold me if I was the instigator. But my grandparents didn’t bother to investigate, they just punished the person who cried. I liked that better. Moses plays the same game with Aaron. He will leave Aaron to manage a community accustomed to idolatry (Exodus 24:13-14), then condemn Aaron for making the golden calf (Exodus 32:19-21). He sets Aaron up to look bad.
Siblings envy each other, especially when one is preferred. I was the straight-A student in my family — teachers hassled my younger siblings for achieving less. Or if Martha did well, the teacher might cruelly say, “Now that’s more like Joe Hample’s sister!” Moses has that pattern with his siblings too. In the wilderness, Miriam and Aaron will criticize Moses’ marriage, but the real issue seems to be professional jealousy (Numbers 12:1-2). Why does Moses always get to be the star?
In spite of these clashes, Moses, Aaron and Miriam are a matched set, like the three tenors (Micah 6:4) — they are each other’s hidden strength. They shared the most painful of childhoods, under the sword of Egypt (Exodus 1:15-22). Those scars may never heal. But it was on this battlefield that Miriam protected the infant Moses (Exodus 2:1-8). When it counts, they’ve got each other’s back.
Our Torah portion says Aaron is three years older than Moses (Exodus 7:7). Miriam must be the firstborn, maybe 6 or 7 when she follows baby Moses down the Nile. The three of them are spaced about as far apart as the three oldest Hamples. My brother Zack is much younger, as Joseph is much younger than his brothers back in Genesis. Freud’s colleague Alfred Adler thought birth order shaped interaction styles throughout life, and this theory is still widespread. People talk about it all the time, but research doesn’t provide much evidence.
Still, I grew up in the heyday of psychiatry. There was a lot of blather about the privileges of the oldest and youngest, and the sorrows of the middle child. I was the oldest, the one who tried hardest to be respectable. That’s why I’m the rabbi. But was that inevitable? Are all rabbis firstborns? In biblical law, special privileges accrue to the firstborn (Deuteronomy 21:17), but biblical narrative often subverts the point. Isaac is a younger brother, Jacob is a younger brother, David is a youngest son, Solomon is a youngest son. Who says the firstborn is necessarily the leader?
Our Torah portion features the Nile turning to blood (Exodus 7:19-20), the first of the 10 plagues. But to me this miracle suggests a more benign metaphor: Blood is thicker than water. We Hamples can hurt each other more than others can hurt us: We know how to push each other’s buttons. Zack doesn’t pull any punches with his outrageous personal questions. Henry likes to remind me what a lot of nonsense I taught him, back when he believed anything I said. At Thanksgiving I teased Martha, whose success in business still surprises me, about being a capitalist, and she visibly flinched. But my siblings are the pillars of my reality, the frame of my identity. And if I’m anxious or sad, they can reassure me like no one else.
At our Sunday school in Morgantown, we begin the weekly assembly with Hinneh Mah Tov, “Look how good it is when brothers/sisters dwell together” (Psalms 133:1). Our text is full of sibling rivalry, but solidarity with our wombmates is still a Jewish value. Self-esteem demands it. If I don’t love these folks who look and act so much like me, how can I ever love myself? PJC
Rabbi Joe Hample is the spiritual leader of the Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, West Virginia. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.