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May We Be Strong and May We Share Our Strength

This week’s d’var Torah on Behar-Behukotai.

When we get to the end of a book of the Torah, as we do this Shabbat when we finish the book of Leviticus, what words do we say (and what does it mean)?

Hazak Hazak v’Nitchazek (Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened).

I knew I wanted to talk about this phrase this Shabbat, but when I sat down to write about it, I realized I didn’t know much about its origins. Apparently there was a time when this phrase was recited after every aliyah, where we now substitute the phrase yasher koach, which means, “May you go from strength to strength.”

It is thought that this blessing comes from the book of Joshua, when the Israelites are about to cross over into the Promised Land. Moses has just died, and the Israelites are under new leadership. God assures Joshua that he will be victorious in the leadership role he is about to assume, and the military campaign he is about to undertake. God urges Joshua to adhere to the teachings of the Torah, and promises that God will be present with him throughout his tenure as leader of the Israelites. Hazak v’ematz, God says to Joshua “Be strong and of good courage” (Joshua 1:6, 7, 9, 18).

Praying for strength is of course an essential part of preparing for leadership, battle, and conquest. But why should praying for strength be a part of our Torah service?

Rabbi Ari Lev, of Kol Tzedek in West Philadelphia, offers the following teaching on the word chazak:

““Chazak”, as with most Hebrew words has multiple meanings or connotations which perhaps helps us understand why call upon it three times.

to be bound to
to be attached to
to support
to preserve
to strengthen
to have courage
to hold fast
to encourage
to retain / to keep
to prove helpful
to uphold

[Rabbi Lev says] I like to imagine that each time we speak it we are calling upon its varied attributes; asking that words of Torah and the lives we have honored in reading them will support and encourage each of us on our own journey’s to wholeness and connection. There is a recognition in the repetition that we are bound to them, and they are forever a part of us.”

We might have previously taken these prayers for strength for granted. But now, more than ever, we are aware that we, too, are on a journey to wholeness and connection, on which there are an increasing number of obstacles and detours. We too are experiencing fear and anxiety as we navigate unfamiliar territory and unseen enemies. Times like these make us even more cognizant of how much we rely on each other’s strength to help us through this wilderness.

We rely on each other to support, preserve, encourage, help, and uphold us. Most of all, we rely on each other for strength.
It is harder than ever to fulfill this role for the people in our community, as many of our tools for strengthening one another—sharing meals, giving hugs, placing a soothing hand on a shoulder, lending our silent presence to others as we sit side-by-side, singing in harmony on Shabbat—these have been taken from us. Moreover, many of us who are trying to be strong are also in desperate need of support ourselves, but we may not know how to ask for it.

It is important to be aware that we can both lend each other our strength, and be in need of strengthening, at the same time. That is not a contradiction. That is life. And I hope that, as we continue to navigate uncertain times, you will reach out for help when you need it.
I was listening to an interview with Professor Kate Bowler, a Duke Divinity Professor and author of Everything Happens for a Reason (and other lies I’ve loved). She has a new podcast called simply Everything Happens. She encourages her listeners to seek out rhythm and connection during these uncertain times. And she makes the suggestion that, each day, we ask ourselves two questions:

  • What do I have to give today? and
  • Who will I give my extra to today?

The answer to question #1 might be “not that much,” but even at our lowest moments, the answer is probably not “nothing.” And even when our own reserves are quite low, I would bet there is always a little strength to be found to answer question #2

When we say hazak hazak v’nitchazek, we can remind ourselves of Bowler’s questions. The first hazak represents our own strength and resources, what we have to make use of today. The second hazak stands for those “leftovers,” the “extra” we have to give to others. And v’nitchazek? Let that remind us that sometimes we need to rely on the strength of others to be strong and of good courage ourselves.

As we honor of this transition from one book of the Torah to another, let us pose these three words as questions:

Hazak: What strength do I have to offer today?

Hazak: Who is in need of my strength today?

V’nitchazek: From where can I draw the strength I need to face what’s next?

Hazak, hazak v’nitchazek: May we be strong. May we share our strength. And may we be strengthened by one another.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz