When I was living in Israel as a rabbinic student, I asked my roommate a simple but profoundly complicated question: why do the Palestinians and Israelis fight so viciously with each other? He paused for a moment before saying, “because they’re brothers. And who do you fight more with than your family?”
In this week’s Torah portion Vayeira we find the akeida, the binding of Isaac. It is a story we know well as we recite it every Rosh Hashanah. That being said, there are certain gaps in the story. For example, we do not know how old Isaac was at the time of the akeida. According to one midrash, Isaac was thirty-seven. Which leaves us with a larger question: if Isaac was thirty-seven, as the midrash teaches, why on earth would he go along with being sacrificed to God? He could have simply walked way or fought the outcome with his much older father.
The reason why Isaac went along, according to the midrash, was because it all started with an argument between Isaac and Ishmael: “And it came to pass after these words” that Isaac and Ishmael were in dispute. Ishmael said: “It is right for me to be the heir of my father, since I am his first-born son.” But Isaac said: “It is right for me to be the heir of my father, since I am the son of Sarah his wife, but you are the son of Hagar, the handmaid of my mother.” Ishmael answered and said: “I am more righteous than you, because I was circumcised when thirteen years old; and if it had been my wish to refuse, I would not have handed myself over to be circumcised.” Isaac answered and said: “Am I not now thirty-seven years old? If the Holy One, blessed be God, demanded all my members I would not hesitate.” Immediately, these words were heard before the Master of the universe, and immediately, the word of Adonai tested Abraham, and said unto him, “Abraham,” and he said, “Here I am.”
In trying to best each other in the eyes of their father and in the eyes of God, Isaac ends up committing himself to a path that could result in his death. This argument seems so silly on the surface, but it gives us a lot of insight into the relationships between siblings.
The Torah is especially cognizant of sibling dynamics. From Cain and Abel through Moses, Miriam and Aaron, these relationships can be ones made up of great love and great conflict. The first murder was between brothers. Sadly, there have been many since.
In this way, the Torah is reminding us of the power our familial relationships have over us and that these same relationships have regional and global implications as well. In order to seek peace and pursue it, as we are commanded to do, we are reminded to start with the families involved and build from there. For the sources of the greatest pain and the greatest love, all starts at home.