Siblings And The Seder, Then And Now


When I think about the Passover seders of my childhood, I remember the giddy preparations: setting the table with my grandmother’s tablecloth and dishes, rolling the matzah balls and making place cards for each of the guests.

When the night finally arrived, my siblings, cousins and I would pounce on my grandfather, the leader of the seder, with all the noteworthy comments we had learned in school. There were always bumbling shenanigans regarding the afikomen, but it was kids vs. adults, and somehow, we always ended up with a trip to Toys R Us with my grandfather during chol hamoed.

My point is, my memory paints an idyllic scene.

As an adult, I see all the stress and tedious preparation that go into the holiday. Yes, the cleaning and the cooking. But also, the delicate balance of family relationships. As a seder host myself, and as a guest in my parents’ home, I see all the care taken in figuring out the needs of each particular family unit. And as we prepare to pile back into the same house this Passover, with my own three children in tow, I’ve been thinking, in particular, about siblings.

Once, we took it for granted that we experienced the same childhood. The same rules, the same family jokes — the same moments would always set off the surreptitious eye rolls about Mom and Dad. As adults and parents, we see more clerly that while we may have simultaneous childhoods, each child is parented differently (and isn’t that the message of The Four Sons?). Our siblings know us in ways no one else does, and their love and friendship are irreplaceable. And yet, at times our expectations of sameness get in the way of our seeing a sibling as a separate and independent person.

The Book of Genesis, certainly, doesn’t give readers a warm and fuzzy feeling about sibling relationships, filled as it is with some serious Darwinian favoritism. Murder, casting a disfavored son into exile, stealing a brother’s birthright, and then selling the favorite son into slavery. Not what I’m going for in my own house. But Miriam, Aaron and Moses in the Book of Exodus — that’s a story I can work with.

Miriam, the oldest, follows her mother’s instructions, places the baby Moses’ basket in the river and watches to find the daughter of Pharaoh collect Moses and raise him in the palace. It is Miriam who recommends to Pharaoh’s daughter that her mother, Yocheved, be Moses’ wet nurse (and can I pause here to just add how awesome the idea of a wet nurse sounds to me? But I digress).

Miriam seems to be everything an older sister should be — dutiful, protective and caring. (Some commentators posit that Miriam and Puah, the Jewish midwife, are one and the same).

Later, though, Miriam and Aaron gossip about their brother, Moses — about his wife (a Cushite woman) — and they wonder why God speaks directly to Moses and not to them. Miriam is punished with a bout of leprosy, and after Aaron and Moses plea for her cure, she returns to the camp with the rest of the Israelites. This seems such an honest portrayal of how things work, particularly in a dynamic of three siblings — alliances shift, but the group reconvenes.

And then there’s Aaron, the middle child. He is known as the iconic peacemaker, the classic trait of the middle child. He may have his moments of wondering how it is that his younger brother is destined for greater heights (see above), but he seems to accept his role, and accompanies Moses, who “does not speak well,” to talk to Pharaoh on his behalf.

Later, in the desert, when Moses goes up to receive the Ten Commandments, Aaron presides over the building of the golden calf. When Moses returns, his question to Aaron is essentially: What have the people done to you, that you have done this? Moses knows, as a younger brother would, that Aaron couldn’t possibly be to blame for this sin. They may get angry at each other, but they believe the best of each other, and come to each other’s aid. What more could we want from two brothers?

And yet, though genetically linked, the three did not grow up together. Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s palace, and countless commentators point out that it is precisely because of his vastly different experience — he was free of a slave’s mentality — that he was primed for leadership.

Perhaps, as much as there is to learn about the miracle of the Israelite’s freedom from slavery, there is plenty to learn from how it was enacted: by God, through three siblings — Moses, the leader, Aaron, the High Priest, and Miriam, who as the source of water to the Israelites in the desert, is the nurturer and sustainer of her people. They drew on their own skills and perspectives and yet together, they led the Israelites from slavery to freedom, from anguish to joy, from sorrow to festivity, from darkness to light.

This Passover, as we look around the table at our family, may we see in each of them the distinct contribution they bring to the table. And may we experience those differences, and our coming together, as our greatest asset.

Tali R. Cohen is a freelance editor. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and three children. (Her two sons are named Aron and Moses).