The great Charlie Chaplin, master of the silent film era, was incredibly close with his older brother Syd. They went through so much together; their father abandoned their family and their mother was an alcoholic. And so Syd and his little brother Charlie took care of each other – they became inseparable. Syd became Charlie’s manager, and the two were incredibly close until the day they died.
But Charlie also had a younger half-brother, Wheeler, whom he never mentioned in either of his autobiographies. Wheeler was raised separately from Charlie, and while Wheeler repeatedly tried to form a relationship with his famous older brother, Charlie refused to have anything to do with him. Wheeler spent the rest of his life worshipping Charlie from afar, collecting memorabilia and newspaper articles about his big brother.
I believe there is an important lesson in the complicated story of Charlie Chaplin and his two brothers.
This week, Jews across the world will read about the case of the enticer – a person who entices others to join him in worshiping idols:
“If your brother, your own mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend entices you in secret, saying, ‘Come let us worship other gods” – whom neither you nor your fathers have known… do not assent or give heed to him. Show him no pity or compassion, and do not shield him.’” (Deuteronomy 13:7-9)
The enticer, warns Moses, is likely to be someone who is very close to you, and so it will be exceptionally difficult to turn them over to the authorities. Nevertheless, you must overcome your natural feelings of love for this person and show him neither pity nor compassion.
As I read these verses, it struck me that Moses’ very first example of someone close is your brother. Why? The sages explain that a brother is a “relative closer to you than any other.” Our siblings are the closest relatives we have! Siblings share the same parents and the same childhood. We share our entire life with siblings – many more years than we know our parents, who usually die a generation before we do, our children, who hopefully live on well beyond us, or our spouses, who we usually meet when we are adults. Siblings are our life-long companions. And they are companions that we are stuck with for better or worse – divorce is not an option!
But sibling relationships are not only powerfully close – they are also complex, and often fraught with tension based in rivalry. Sibling rivalry is a normal aspect of childhood. Fairly or unfairly, children are compared to their siblings, and they compete with one another for the love and attention of their parents. Sadly, these rivalries often continue into adulthood. The most painful family relationships in the Bible are between adult brothers and sisters. Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Rachel and Leah, Josef and his brothers – the list goes on and on. The unique closeness of siblings exists alongside unique pain.
During my years as a synagogue rabbi in America, I learned that the Chaplin family was not unusual. While helping congregants grapple with the loss of a parent, I often found myself caught in the middle between resentful siblings carrying a lifetime of emotional baggage. I wasn’t surprised to learn that several research studies indicate that up to 45% of adults have a rivalrous, cold or distant relationship with a sibling.
What is extraordinary about the story of Charlie Chaplin and his two brothers is that, in reality, it is not extraordinary at all. His extraordinary closeness with his older brother and his refusal to speak with his younger brother capture the double-edged sword of sibling relationships. Our brothers and sisters are the people we feel closest to – and the people who hurt us the most.
With all the complexity of sibling relationships, the personal story of Moses himself reminds us why we must never give up on our relationships with our siblings. Though Moses, Aaron and Miriam dealt with some sibling tensions (see Numbers 12), their love for one another is an inspiring example of sibling closeness and love. Miriam saved Moses’ life when he was just a baby, while Aaron did not envy his brother when God chose Moses to lead the people of Israel. And Moses prayed for his siblings during their most painful moments. Together, these siblings refused to descend into jealousy and pettiness – and brought their people from slavery to redemption. Perhaps we can do the same as well!