Should we avoid associating with Godless people? I’m the only religious child with 3 brothers and two sisters and I’m frequently torn between seeing them and avoiding the negative effect they can have on me. I find they do drag me down when I’m in their presence.
Do I owe anything to them because they are family?
The short answer is, “yes,” but that doesn’t answer the question, “What do you owe them?” God placed a moral obligation upon siblings towards one another. But the borders are not black and white. Many children gravitate towards rules, be they in games or classrooms, and get upset when a rule is unclear. As we grow, we learn about nuances and exceptions to the rules, but we are constantly tested by needing to straddle lines such as between justice and mercy or discipline and compassion. We human beings often find it easier to live in a world of black and white rather than in the real world that God placed us which has many shades of grey in most of the real-life decisions we face every day.
You are in such a situation with your family, though you haven’t given us any examples of why they drag you down. At one extreme, you have no obligation, shall we say, to join your siblings at a movie that doesn’t meet your moral criteria, but in most cases, while you might not enjoy meeting occasionally for coffee or a family party, we would recommend that you do so. There should be a way to retain some contact while simultaneously limiting and shaping it.
If the negative is blatant, then creative thinking might be helpful here. A friend of ours found it difficult to speak to one of his uncles because the uncle’s conversation leaned heavily towards (harmful) gossip about people they knew in common. He finally hit upon the strategy of preparing questions in his head about a subject that interested this relative and constantly guides the conversation in that direction. He found that in this way he could call once a month or so, keep the conversation relatively short but feel that he wasn’t abandoning a rather lonely uncle. A student of ours realized that she and her sister both enjoyed music and so they attend concerts together, giving them a joint activity that minimizes the interaction between them.
It might be worth recalling King David’s advice for when you have to interact with people who are truly a negative influence on you.
Happy is the man who has not walked by the counsel of the wicked, or stood in the path of sinners, or sat down in the company of the insolent. (Psalms 1:1)
Notice that he lists three specific verbs: walk, stand, sit, in that sequence. Ancient Jewish wisdom reveals the deeper meaning. Sometimes, circumstances force us to have dealings (either family or business) with wicked people, sinners, or insolent people. The trick is to minimize it in a state of full personal awareness. If you must, walk with them although the best is not to do even that. However, if you have to walk with them, at least avoid stopping with them. As long as you’re walking and moving, you’re not fully associating as you would when you stop and stand with them for a long chat on the street corner. Finally, if you must stand with them at least avoid pulling up a chair, sitting down and joining the club. For your situation, this teaching from the opening of Psalms, advises you to grade your interactions and engage only to the extent necessary. Keep walking, standing and sitting in your mind as metaphors for levels of involvement.
We suggest you ask yourself what about your siblings drags you down and strategize accordingly. Do what you can to make seeing them, if not more pleasant, then less unpleasant. Remember too that, in their eyes, you are a representative of religion and belief. That puts a responsibility on your shoulders to avoid giving them the impression that those who love God don’t care about people.
As an aside, and without knowing your specific situation, we discourage gratuitous labeling of people. We know many who never set foot in a synagogue or church but who nonetheless have a deep spiritual connection with their Creator. Sadly, there are others who identify strongly with a church or synagogue but whose behavior doesn’t align with what we would consider to be Godly instruction.
We don’t know your story and so this point isn’t necessarily directed at you, but there is a fine line between having standards and being excessively judgmental in a way that could be seen as obnoxious. Are you looking for the good in your siblings? Does your brother coach Little League or your sister volunteer at a soup kitchen? Are they faithful spouses, involved parents and responsible employees? Is it possible to find something positive in your siblings’ lives that you can admire and even praise?
While you, and many of us, might have chosen different relatives if we had been given the opportunity to do so, God placed these specific people in your life and you are inextricably connected to them. Find the area of compromise that allows you to retain some level of obligation with the least chance of damage to your own personal growth.
Wishing you success,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin
P.S. Catch our interview with author Judy Gruen on the Ancient Jewish Wisdom TV Show. Then check out her book The Skeptic and the Rabbi (guess who the starring Rabbi is?).
31 thoughts on “Must I stay in touch with my siblings?”
Huh, you know you guys seem pretty thoughtful and well versed in the ways of the world… Thanks for sharing.
I guess, I can only speak for myself, But I don’t think I’m alone in saying, I/we appreciate it.
This article reminds me. There was a pretty serious falling out within my own family. My Paternal Grandparents are J. Witnesses, and my father decided to “leave the faith” when he was a teen.
This was unacceptable to my grandparents. They needed to “Stem the bleed”, and didn’t want to be corrupted my fathers “wicked ways”. Honestly, he rebel in all the usual ways. My father regrets some of it. He was just a kid then, but we all grow, and he did too.
So… they basically disowned him, and still to this day, they barely speak to one an other. I’ve gotten to know them both of them over time, and I would say that my father, and grandfather are both good, God fearing, respectable, and well hardheaded Men. So, this tragedy remains in place.
Hey, come to think of it, I’m pretty sure that I was disowned too >=^(.
My grandfather, and I would go out for breakfast every once in a while, and one day he asked me if I was ready to “come to the truth”. I said “no thank you”. We didn’t talk for a long while after that. This wasn’t unreasonable as I had left town for work. a few years later, he came to my other Grandfather’s funeral to pay his respects. I tried to talk to him, and shake his hand, but it was like grabbing a wet fish and, he was quite. I realized then, that he wasn’t there to see me.
The last time I heard anything about them, my grandmother was fading fast, and my grandfather is losing his wits.
We obviously have to protect ourselves from toxic situations. Life is short and there is no sense in making it shorter. But… We get so little time in this world, to spend with loved ones. Grace, helps us make the best use of that time.
We all have irredeemable qualities. Grace is the rope that we use to pull each other, and our selves through the mire, that is life.
So… I like your guy’s response RD&SL. I agree with it, and I wanted to say “can confirm”.
But, after extensively reviewing my post here, It looks like what I have to offer is a cautionary tale of getting the balance wrong…
Have a good day guys.
I was so anxious to read this answer and appreciate everyone sharing.
It is hard to know what to do with siblings and it can be painful. My sister cut me out of her life for over 10 years we didn’t speak. I first attempted to reach out and would even send gifts to her children but never heard from her and gave up which lead to no communication for over 10 years. After many years we reconnected and several years after that she was diagnosed with cancer. We lived in different states but I did all I could to support her and was by her side daily with calls, texts etc. She even visited me twice. I even went to her son’s wedding which was in the state I live and it was hard as her children did not greet my husband and I even though they obviously knew I was part of their Mom’s life again. They went out of there way to not communicate with is and it was obvious to all. My thought was should she not have asked her children to treat their Aunt with respect and particularly her husband who has done nothing in this situation. After this I still communicated with my sister till I was diagnosed with depression after an illness. While in this phase of my life my counselor would read the texts and emails I got from my sister and recommended I limit my exposure to her since she was in her definition narcissist and not helping with my own recovery. So I would talk to my sister but limited as I was very ill at the time. Now my sister has decided again since I didn’t “care to spend time with her more” that she doesn’t want to talk to me again so we have lost all touch again. I feel betrayed and used and “thrown away”. Everyday I struggle with this pain but I can’t bear to be hurt again and have decided its best to not communicate with my sister. She is toxic to me and I feel she only cares about herself. I don’t understand how you can so easily “throw someone out of your life”. So what would the Rabbi and Susan say.. curious as I am in pain but don’t want more and I know she will only continue to hurt me. I struggle because the Bible tells us to forgive.
Angeline, we are so, so sorry that you are in this situation. Our answer was meant for the normal range of differences of personality and even behaviors. When extreme things, be they addiction or certain mental illnesses are involved, things are much tougher. At that point, you really do need someone who can examine the details and help with a very individual situation. Yours sounds like one of those sad cases where we could not begin to advise you from afar. It seems like you made every effort to meet your sister more than half-way. Whatever you decide, there will be sadness, but please be kind to yourself and don’t add guilt to the mixture.
Thank you! Your last sentence is profound and I will remember this as I heal. Thank you!
Just one example of what I am up against in my family: while I love,love, love the fact that Chick-Fil-A gives their employees Sunday off – my sister believes that they should be forced to open on Sundays because of the Separation of Church and State!!! Yikes!
Because of a principle I taught in my book America’s Real War, namely that politics is nothing other than the practical application of our most deeply held moral and ‘religious’ values, we argue deeply over politics just as we would over religion. I can totally understand that your sister, who I presume is an ardent worshipper at the church of secular fundamentalism, hates the heresies of Chick-Fil-A. I get it. If she was my co-worker with whom I had to get on, I’d discuss stamp collecting and middle period Etruscan pottery–anything but religion/politics.
i have a question.about money being spiritual why should people who exploit other people against their free will beifit by billions of dollors when this is not gods way of prosperingpeople and these people are really eneimies of god and his ways.
I am not sure who you are thinking of when you say “people who exploit other people against their free will..” Who are these villains? Do you mean the Internal Revenue Service of the Federal Government? Surely not. Who are these people who are ‘really enemies of God…’? At the moment I am puzzled but I hope for clarification so we can indeed admonish and indict these terrible people.
Rabbi Lapin, Loved your answer !
I was orphaned as a child and none of our relatives took us in . We had six Aunts and Uncles. I was in foster care and orphanages for years . As an adult I went back to the relatives and made an effort to be friends with my parents siblings. I made a decision the conscious decison to hold no remorse. That was 40 years ago and as I look back on what I did it was therapeutic for both them and me . I am so glad I made the decision to stay in touch with them and not have a spirit of bitterness. It has served me well and I know my parents would be proud of how I handled it. Family isn’t always the easiest to get along with but they are family !
And I love your comment, Jeff,
You know how familiar I am with your astounding background and the remarkable rise you have made from those dark days. Now in this comment you reveal a little of your huge and humble heart that made so much of your breathtaking success possible. Your parents are undoubtedly proud.
This was a deeply meaningful response for me. My relationship with my siblings is perhaps the greatest moral question in my life at the moment. You have given me so much to think about and have challenged my assumptions. Thank you so much.
You know that Susan and I know a little of your complicated family background and you know how impressed we are at how surely and wisely you and your noble husband have always navigated those troubled waters. Looking forward to an opportunity of discussing it all in person.
Your response to a question with very little detail was well thought out and words to live by. I love your suggestion to stay in touch but limit your interaction. Very applicable and good advice for my own family. Thank you.
Thank you Janice-
You can’t imagine how uplifting it is for us to hear that our teachings are helping someone in solving some of life’s practical problems and puzzling paradoxes.
Sad to say, I had a major falling out with the sister who is my mother’s major caretaker, by her own choice. And the saddest thing is I ‘ll never see or talk to her or my mother again. I’ll be barred from my mother’s funeral service also. The major issue is I gave a strong opinion for Mom’s final arrangements must be burial when the time comes. She disqualified my opinion and my status as a daughter. I hit the roof and my reply was sharp and to the point. Unbelievable !!!! Rabbi Lapin and Susan, this kind of family I can do without. Sooooo sad.
You have to be extremely careful when addressing your opinion to the primary caregiver. If your sister is taking care of your mom, how much are you assisting hands that care? Are you doing your fair share as a daughter, or are you just voicing your opinion when it is convenient for you? This is a trap that’s so many people get into. And it tears families apart. Yes having a relationship with your mom is important, I suggest you apologize to your sister. She probably has her hands full and deals with the stress everyday. And ask her how you can take some of the load.
There are so many people in this situation, talk to some of your friends who were caregiving for their parents. Even if you were sister is very difficult and possibly kostek, she is performing a very important function and needs to be honored for that.
We both really understand your pain and sympathize with your frustration. Those closest to us possess the power to hurt us most deeply. The only thing we disagree with is your closing sentiment, “this kind of family I can do without.” Hoping you bring about reconciliation.
Thank you rabbi for answering my question!
It was very astute of you to warn me of possible “judgmentalism” as that seems to be a particular moral weakness of mine. I needed that reminder!
Also, my representing the religious outlook to others has often crossed my mind. If my faith and experience of God is strong, rather than bring me down, I might lift them up! That is my hope and prayer for the future.
Thank you for writing–it is always so heartwarming to hear back from the person whose letter we answered. The only correction I would make is that you address your note to me when you say “Thank you rabbi…” when in fact, it is a total collaboration of Susan and me. We understand that the feature is called Ask The Rabbi so who would know that it may be “ask the rabbi” but it is most definitely the rabbi AND SUSAN who respond! You couldn’t have been expected to know that. And I won’t be judgmental towards you about it!
Again, we marvel at the moral prestige and the breathtaking self-awareness of those who write to us.
Right! I would consider becoming the President of the Susan Lapin Fan Club, such is my admiration for your wife!
Should it be called Ask the Rabbi and His Better Half?
Great idea, Tom.
Well, our book is called “Dear Rabbi & Susan” to highlight the marital collaboration that is the Lapins
Really good to hear from you Tom,
and it sounds as if you are going to be able to handle this situation and guide it to a happy outcome
I have one half brother and one half sister. But I didn’t grow up with them, they are much more older than me, we don’t live nearby and most importantly, we don’t share any common values.
So I don’t feel obligated to be in any form of artificial relationship with them. I send them message for their birthday and holidays. And I wish them luck of course. But that’s pretty much it. Most who know me don’t even know that I have any brother or sister.
We all choose to whom we should be in touch and to whom not.
I know Ivan, I know and yet I still wonder whether closing that old family loop, even in the absence of much in the way of shared history or values, might have value in smoothing out any wrinkles in your own psyche?
You definitely made me a bit more of thinking when you earlier indirectly mention, at least I concluded that, that with the deficit of our personal sacrifice and the surplus of our personal selfishness we ourselves indirectly making path to communistic society. And I surely don’t want that!
So I suppose that your point was that with our own example we can’t easily cross over family members in our lives. I hate communism and it will be ironic if with my own example I indirectly promote their goals.
I intuitively know the weaker are family bonds the stronger their agenda is…
Dear Rabbi Lapin, your answer to “Must I Stay in Touch with My Siblings” really hit home. I accompanied my husband to a coffee shop and he noticed some of his business associates, so we sat down with them. As the conversation went on, I was horrified at the gossip and ridicule of shared friends. In my own life I have been guilty of this and other things, and as I started to think critical thoughts, I was reminded of my own guilt. The Lord has a way of reminding us of our own guilt to teach us grace and love towards others. 🙂 Thank you for sharing and for your excellent advice!
It really is so uplifting for us to read your account of how our work played a small role in improving your life. We love when that happens.
My brother is an alcoholic and extremely verbally abusive. I bent over backward trying to make him feel part of my family since his own children would not have anything to do with him. He constantly attacked me and even attacked all theee of my adult children at different times. None of us feel we can have him in our lives with his destructive behavior … yet I hurt for him. Unfortunately, he can only change himself with God’s help. I would love to have my brother in my life but he would destroy me … yet the guilt is almost unbearable that I can’t help him.
I love this response. I have some issues in the same area and this is a wonderful answer thank you. I do have a relative who is trying to get into a relationship with my ex husband and I don’t have feelings for the ex but I also don’t want to be around the ex either.
Complicated situation to be sure Ms-
You can’t control the relative seeking closeness to the ex but you can control the extent of contact with the relative if she forms an alliance with the ex.
Hope all works out well
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