How to treat siblings, others
When you have twins, many people ask questions, particularly about “when” you will separate them. When did they sleep in separate cribs, rooms, go to different activities, or have separate school classes? The answers for every family are different, of course.
My kids arrived at the same time, but they’re fraternal twins. That means, they’re brothers and they’re the same age. From the beginning, we tried to make Jewish connections to this: part of their Hebrew names are Ephraim and Menashe, and their dad is named, in part, Yosef. (And his father’s name is Ya’akov.) In the Bible, Ephraim and Menashe were brothers, not twins.
Twins have a special bond. My kids slept in the same crib for about nine months, and then in cribs across the room from each other. I met another parent of twin girls once. He described how the two toddlers would be placed in their separate, but adjoining, cribs to sleep. Inevitably, someone climbed into the other crib. When their parents went to get them, they both were sleeping in the same place.
Even now, one of my twins begs the other for a “sleep over” and what he means is, “Can I go climb into your bed with you?” (We say no, as it ends up keeping everyone in the house up.) My kids also shared something else – they didn’t sleep through the night until they were 4½ years old. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say: we value sleep and bedtime, perhaps much more than togetherness.
The Torah portion of Vayeshev (Genesis 27:1-40:23) is a difficult story about brothers. It’s essentially about favouritism and sibling rivalry – when Joseph’s older brothers decide to gang up on him and get rid of him, because he is their father’s favourite.
I asked my kids what they thought about it, and they mentioned how great it was to have a brother, and a twin. They didn’t have toys that were “too old” or “too little kid” for them and they always had someone with whom to play. They love each other. They are best friends. They chose to take baths together in our claw foot bathtub until they were too big to fit comfortably.
At the same time, they also fight, get very jealous of anything seen as “unfair” – all the normal sibling things. However, instead of reading only rabbinic commentaries this time, I thought about my kids’ responses. This is valuable, too. They’re learning to take turns and take care of each other, and are establishing these bonds for life.
My husband shared a room with his brother throughout their childhood. In adulthood, despite managing young families and living in different countries, they still communicate often, about everything and nothing.
A teacher recently suggested I might separate my kids so they could develop their “individuality.” Instead, I reflected on the teenagers I met when I lived on a kibbutz in Israel. They were raised in children’s houses, all together. Though not twins, they were raised as a group. While this model isn’t common anymore, kibbutzniks produced great leaders for the state of Israel: many brave volunteers, military leaders and strong politicians. The kids I met answered questions as a class: their favourite game was soccer, their favourite foods were chips (French fries), ice cream and salad. The strength these kids had together and their camaraderie were powerful. We chose to keep our kids together, to nurture a deep feeling that someone has their back.
Part of sharing everything is learning together what’s safe and acceptable, and what isn’t. I want to raise my kids in Jewish ways – and that includes working on raising boys who know how to respect others. My kids love the newspaper cartoons, but require an adult to read and interpret them and, lately, political cartoons about celebrities and sexual assault are more frequent. This is a “touchy” subject for 6 year olds.
The rabbis teach us that everything is worth examining, and open to interpretation and extrapolation. Whether it’s the Torah portion’s lessons about how to treat siblings or a cartoon at the breakfast table, we need to think critically and learn from what is presented to us. This morning, we covered another lesson – “This man touched other people without permission. No one wanted to be touched that way. He lost his job. Now people are saying how wrong this behaviour is – in the cartoons and news.”
North American society puts a strong emphasis on being rugged individualists; people who know their minds and act independently. However, being a good Jewish person, a mensch, involves knowing how to behave among others – people you love, and strangers, too. Often, life isn’t fair – your youngest brother gets a fancy handmade coat, like Joseph. Yet, what matters is where the rubber hits the road; how we use derech eretz (the right way to behave) to cope with what life gives us. How we behave and treat others, no matter who they are, is what counts. In Jewish tradition, it’s how we act that matters.
Sometimes, the Torah portion of the week reminds of how we shouldn’t behave. When we read about Joseph’s “Technicolour Dreamcoat,” we’re reminded to examine how we behave: as parents, as siblings, and as people. We don’t live completely independently of our families and communities, even if we see ourselves as individuals. When I used to teach full time, I often had to stop students from doing something inappropriate, and I’d ask, “What would your mother or grandmother think of this?”
My twins know the Jewish thing to do – your mother wants you to keep your hands to yourself, to take care of each other and … don’t act like Joseph’s brothers did!
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and is a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News. She is the author of the book From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.