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D’var Torah: Torah urges us to be strong and resolute
August 31st, 2012
I love to study Torah. I always have. I enjoy reading the stories that make up our collective history as a Jewish people. I am fascinated when I read laws that were useful in biblical times and still have relevance today.
And yet, by far, the element of Torah that intrigues me the most is the relationships. Connections between the Matriarchs and Patriarchs, their concubines, servants and larger community offer tremendous lessons about living, loving, growing old, and treating fellow humans.
They also offer us a glimpse into the private lives of our ancestors. It’s reality television more than 3,000 years ago.
The stories of Moses and the Israelites, and Moses and Joshua, are no exception. After faithfully leading the Israelites for 40 years through the wilderness, Moses has to face the fact that because of his shortcomings (see Numbers 20:12), he will never see the Promised Land.
In Deuteronomy, especially the portions that we read this month, Moses isn’t bitter as some of us may be. He is honest and composed and seizes the opportunity to share with the Israelites what is in his heart.
In Rabbi Gunther Plaut’s Torah commentary, the opening chapter of Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31) is called “Final Appeal and Farewell.” It describes Moses’ last days, his preparations for death, the final instructions to the Israelites, and the appointment of his successor, Joshua.
So what does Moses say? In reference to the many peoples that will rise against the Israelites, and the challenges the Israelites will face, Moses implores: “Be strong and resolute, be not in fear or in dread of them…”
Moses, ever our faithful leader, wants his people to know that even when he is not there, God is with them and they will triumph.
Then to Joshua, in front of the Israelites, Moses repeats: “Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that the Eternal swore to their fathers to give them” (Deuteronomy 31:6-7). Moses has enough confidence in his relationship with the Israelites and in his legacy that he can officially and publicly transfer that to Joshua.
And twice Moses says: “Be strong and resolute” (“chazak v’amatz”). He is not the only one who urges strength. A few verses later God tells Joshua that he needs to be strong and resolute for he shall bring the Israelites into the Promised Land.
The same verses re-appear in the Book of Joshua. Three times in chapter one, God repeats this construct while reminding Joshua that he will be with him. They are also referenced in Chronicles as well (22:13 and 28:20).
What is it about strength that is comforting? Do we need to be body builders to have confidence and to stay the path? Are we talking physical or mental strength?
Surely some of these passages refer to battles in which the Israelites will be tested — physical strength. But the strength we and the Israelites need to have is primarily mental. We cannot waver. We cannot doubt. We must have faith.
Yet doubting is normal. We are constantly being tested in our lives. We lose loved ones. People get sick. Economies fail. Everyone ages.
Life is full of challenges. It was back in biblical times and it is now. And that is why we repeat, chazak v’amatz. The word chazak reminds us that despite it all, we need to stay firm and we need to stay mentally fit.
The constant reminder doesn’t end there. Whenever we finish a book of Torah the congregation recites, “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek” — “Be strong, be strong, and may we strengthen one another.”
In Sephardic congregations, when someone finishes an aliyah to the Torah the congregation says, “Chazak ubaruch,” to which the oleh says, “Chazak v’amatz.” (“Treasury of Sephardic Laws and Customs” by Herbert Dobrinsky.)
In his article “Chazak — Renewing Our Strength When We Finish the Torah,” Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb offers one explanation for chazak in connection with Torah.
While Torah is a Tree of Life to those who cling to it, “it makes demands on our time and energy; it sometimes places us in conflict with values and temptations that contemporary life places before us. Torah provides moments of great pleasure, but also moments of pain and sacrifice. So the rabbis knew what they were saying when they said that Torah is one of the things for which we need chizuk, strength.”
We need strength not just for reading Torah, but for living Torah and allowing it to guide our lives, our relationships and our journey through life.
Chazak v’amatz Moses charged. Chazak v’amatz God urged. Chazak v’amatz, Joshua said. Chazak v’amatz we respond. We will be strong and resolute.
Rabbi Shari Shamah is Jewish Family Specialist at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.