By Mark S. Young
As vaccines lift restrictions and allow us to reunite with loved ones and colleagues—perhaps embracing again after a long time apart—how have you reacted? Did you cry? Were you joyous? Were you surprised by your feelings? Did you express your emotions at all? Did you instead recite a prayer or perform some other ritual?
The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated our lives and our work in unimaginable ways. Although many JCCs immediately offered in-person services to essential workers’ families and most JCCs re-opened just weeks later, only now are nearly all JCC programs returning in close to full force. These re-openings, complicated by a surge of the Delta variant in various places in North America, create many firsts in well over a year that may have us wondering how we will react and what we will need to manage at in-person programs and events, now and in the future. The truth is that it’s hard to know until we experience them, and even then, we may not have all the answers.
When we face complicated questions such as these, our Jewish tradition, though ancient, often offers wisdom and guidance that speak to today’s realities with poignant relevance. I was thrilled to participate recently in Hadar Institute’s Jewish Wisdom Fellowship, during which an entire “Torah of Re-Opening” cohort studied Jewish texts that address some of these very questions.
For example, we studied the reunion of Joseph and his father Jacob (also known as Israel), one of the forbearers of the Jewish people. Their reunion occurs at the end of the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Torah. Earlier in Genesis, we see Joseph as Jacob’s favorite, which the latter clearly showed by giving his son a fancy, multi-colored coat. Enraged by jealousy, Joseph’s many brothers sold him to the Egyptians, who imprisoned him. Joseph later rose to great prominence by interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, and years later, when his brothers travel to Egypt, Joseph is a senior leader in Pharaoh’s kingdom.
At this point in the story, we encounter this text:
Joseph ordered his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel; he presented himself to him and, embracing him around the neck, he wept on his neck a good while. Then Israel said to Joseph, “Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive. (Genesis 46:29-30)
The biblical commentator, Rashi, explicates both Joseph and Jacob’s (Israel) reactions to this reunion:
AND WEPT ON HIS NECK A GOOD WHILE … Here (Joseph), also, he wept greatly and continuously — more than is usual. Jacob, however, did not fall upon Joseph’s neck nor did he kiss him. Our Rabbis say: the reason was that he was reciting the Shema.
In our study, many colleagues expressed surprise that Joseph, who was sold away by his family and whose father seemingly did not try to rescue him, was the one to weep “more than is usual.” Jacob, on the other hand, who lost many years together with his favorite child, appeared stoic, not kissing his son but merely saying a prayer and announcing his readiness to die rather than expressing a desire to spend time with his long lost son.
This initial reading may be correct, or it may be judgmental of both father and son. In chavruta (studying with a partner), our cohort probed further, and posited that Jacob and Joseph, as unique individuals, each experienced their reunion quite differently—and needed different things from it. We suggested that, though he had reason to be angry, Joseph refused to be so. Rather, he expressed both sadness and joy through his tears, needing only to release his emotions. Despite his position of authority, he was unafraid to show his vulnerability, which allowed him to embrace his father and be fully present during their reunion.
We also posited that Jacob was far from unemotional. It is possible that he was so overwhelmed upon seeing his son that he was unable to demonstrate any emotion at all, recognizing, instead, his need for a ritual—in this case reciting the Shema— to navigate through the moment. Our cohort also speculated that the reunion gave Jacob, overwhelmed upon seeing his son again, the permission he needed, metaphorically at least, to die or to die in peace when his time comes.
So, what can we learn from this ancient reunion as we come together again after so much time apart from one another?
Of course, our experiences are different than those of Jacob and Joseph. We have Zoom and other tools that enable us to gather virtually. What’s more, in many JCCs, in-person gatherings may have been the norm throughout much of the pandemic. Nonetheless, we may find a lot to relate to in this Jewish text. There is much to consider, both individually and within our own communities, and I hope the text and this commentary spark your thinking and prompt discussion within teams, departments, and JCC communities.
Personally, this exercise has made me certain in my uncertainty. I now recognize and understand that until I participate in a reunion with others, I likely will not know how any of us will react or what we might need—individually or collectively—to get us through the experience. Like Joseph, some of us, even senior professionals in positions of authority, may need to make space to be vulnerable and show our emotions. Others may need rituals, just as Jacob recited the Shema, to help us navigate these powerful, emotion-packed moments of return. Whatever we may need at this time, it’s important, too, to remember that when they reunited, neither Jacob nor Joseph was the same person he was were when they were last together. The same is true for us: We are not the same people we were 18 months ago, and we are not returning to the same realities we left in March of 2020.
As we continue to navigate re-openings and the reunions that come with them, may we take time to pause, reflect, check in with ourselves and each other—and listen to those check-ins—so we can assess and process the myriad emotions and reactions we and others are experiencing and, together, move successfully into our new reality.
Read “The Torah of Re-Opening: The Conflict Between Joy and Sadness” another blog post Young wrote based on his fellowship at the Hadar Institute.