Parasha Tazria — Getting Along with Your Brother or Sister

[The following sermon was written with our third graders, who participated in our Friday night services, in mind.]

I don’t know how many of our students in the third grade know who Sonia Sotomayor is. Sonia Sotomayor is the first Hispanic Judge appointed to the United States Supreme Court. She was appointed in 2009 by President Obama. As you know the Supreme Court of our nation consists of nine judges, all of whom are extremely important to our country.  Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor grew up in a large Puerto Rican family in New York City. In fact I am reading a book about her life that she wrote in 2013 titled My Beloved World. In her book, she writes about her relationship with her brother, who is three years younger than she is. He is a doctor now, but when they were growing up, like a lot of brothers and sisters they fought a lot. Like a lot of big sisters, she thought that her little brother, who she calls “Junior”, was somewhat of a pest. He followed her around the house, imitated her every gesture, and interfered in every conversation. Once, when he was about two, she led him out of their apartment into the hallway and shut the door. Much later her mother found him sitting where she had left him, sucking his thumb. Was her mom mad!!!!

But that was at home. At school, however she watched out for her little brother. If someone would pick on him, that person would have to deal with his older sister!  She writes, “If I got beat up on Junior’s account, I would settle things with him later, but no one was going to lay a hand upon him except me!”

I am sure that I don’t have to tell you that — even though they love each other deep down, sometimes brothers and sisters don’t get along — or brothers and brothers or sisters and sisters, for that matter. Sometimes they fight. Many a bar and bat mitzvah student have thanked their brother or sister in their speech with a “left handed compliment”. A “left handed compliment” is a way of praising someone while at the same time “dissing” them. For example – “I want to thank my little brother for being only a little annoying’ when I was studying for my bat mitzvah”. That is a “left handed compliment”.

The Torah is full of stories of brothers who do not get along. The first story about brothers not getting along is the story of Cain and Abel.  Sarah doesn’t like how Ishmael and Isaac are playing together. Jacob and Esau do not get along at all. Joseph’s brothers wanted to get rid of him so badly they didn’t just lead him into the hallway and shut the door. The sell him into slavery!  It is not until we get to the Book of Exodus, and the story of Moses, that we find brothers and sisters who get along and help each other. Moses’ older sister Miriam saves his life by putting him in a basket in the Nile River. Moses’ brother, Aaron, helps him confront Pharaoh and speaks to the Israelites on his behalf. The brothers and sisters all seem to get along in that family.

Even brothers and sisters, regardless of their ages, who get along sometimes have their disagreements. Later on in the Torah, Aaron and Miriam grow jealous of Moses and they criticize him. Moses is too humble to defend himself. However, G-d gets angry and speaks to them, saying, “How dare you speak against my servant Moses?” G-d punishes Miriam by giving her “tsaraat”, a disease that turns her skin all white. We read about Tsaraat in the Torah for the first time this week.

As soon as Moses sees Miriam suffering from Tsaraat, he prays to G-d to heal her. He doesn’t hold a grudge and he does not hesitate. “El nah, re-fah nah lah” – please G-d, heal her please, he prays. I imagine Moses felt a lot like Sonia Sotomayor felt with her brother – nobody is going to lay a hand on her but me!

I conclude with a note of consolation for all the parents and grandparents who worry about brothers and sisters fighting. According to University of Illinois psychologist Laurie Kramer, there is nothing better for children than to learn about fighting by doing so with someone who is still going to be your brother or sister the next day.  Why is that?  Because, often these are safe relationships where children experiment and develop skills and even try out some things that may not be acceptable in other types of relationships. In this way children develop social and emotional competencies that they will use in managing other relationships in their lives, both in the present and as they grow older. I am sure those skills have been put to good use by Sonia Sotomayor as she goes about her work as a Justice in an often contentious Supreme Court of the United States.

Shabbat Shalom