“No, I would not give you false hope on this strange and mournful day, but the mother and child reunion is only a motion away…”
So begins Paul Simon’s 1971 classic ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ Its lines have been running around my head all week. “Only a motion away.”
Parashat Vayigash tells the tale of Jacob and Joseph’s reunion after twenty two years.
“He had sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph, to point the way before him to Goshen. So when they came to the region of Goshen, 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 46:28-30]
Weeping and embracing – a kiss and a cry – are the “motion” of this father and child reunion. And, says Rashi, the weeping is profuse and continuous, more than usual (ba’bekhi yoteir min ha’ragil). The Torah’s wording leaves open the question of who weeps and who embraces. Is it Jacob or is it Joseph? The answer to that question shapes and shifts the tone and texture of the story in interesting ways.
Ramban suggests that Jacob weeps and kisses his beloved son, explaining himself with a pair of rhetorical questions – “By whom are tears more easily shed? By the aged parent who finds his long-lost son alive, or by the young man who is a ruler?” Jacob moves toward Joseph, allowing his emotions to flow and overflow, while Joseph remains in his new role as ruler, unable to set his ego aside in order to be fully present to his aged father.
Rashi reads it the other way around. “Jacob, however, neither fell on Joseph’s neck nor kissed him. Our Sages said that he was reciting the Shema.” Now it’s Joseph who fully occupies this tender moment of reconciliation, while Jacob remains stuck in his ideological and religious commitments, unable to interrupt his prayer in order to embrace his long-lost son.
I’d like to suggest a third possibility. The Torah’s ambiguous language strikes me as intentional, a conscious choice on the part of the author(s) that leaves it to us as readers to spin out the possibilities. Ramban and Rashi choose, but perhaps there is no need to take sides. Rather, let’s imagine that the embrace and the tears are mutual, that both Jacob and Joseph set their self-protective instincts aside and embrace the chance for reconciliation and reunion as they embrace one another.
The message to us? Set aside ego, overcome yetzer, kiss, weep, and reconcile. Hard, but worth it. Or to paraphrase the closing words of Paul Simon’s great song: “Oh, the father and child reunion is only a motion away; Oh, the father and child reunion is only a moment away.” Only a motion/moment away.