Being Strong

Question: I am a lay leader at my temple. Since our rabbi is away, I will be leading this week’s Shabbat service. I have beginner-intermediate skills for chanting Torah. Your pasha page was very helpful. Could you define the words “Chazak Chazak Venis-chazeik,” so that I can explain it to the congregation?

The Aish Rabbi Replies: Upon completing a public reading of one of the Five Books of Moses, everybody stands up and shouts “Chazak! Chazak! Venis-chazeik!” which translate as “Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!”

Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin (in To Pray as a Jew) explains that this is a cry of encouragement to continue with the reading of the next book, and to return to this one again in due course. The triple use of the word “Chazak” may symbolize past, present and future.

Be strong and may you be strengthened!

“Completing a Book of Torah”
from the “Ask the Rabbi” series

Simchat Torah is the occasion in religious Judaism on which the very last portion of the Torah is read before immediately proceeding back to the beginning and starting another annual cycle. As was explained in the quote above, at the end of the reading of each book of Torah, it is customary to say, “Chazak, chazak, venitchazek” which translates as “Be strong, be strong, and may you be strengthened.”

But be strengthened for what?

Synagogues throughout the world will reverberate this Shabbat with the communal outcry of “Chazak, chazak, venitchazek” as the final words of Chumash Shemot are read.

This rallying cry to strengthen ourselves as we move from one Chumash to another is especially relevant to Jews living in Israel. Faced by the relentless terror from our enemies and the complacence of a world towards those who wish to destroy the Jewish State, there is truly an urgent need to remain strong in spirit as well as in defensive capability.

But this strength must have its source in our Torah, which gives us an undeniable right to our Land. The more that Jews see that there is a direct relationship between loyalty to Torah and security there will be a strengthening of our ability to enjoy Israel forever.

-Rabbi Mendel Weinbach
“Chazak, Chazek, Venitchazek”
Ohr Somayach

We see that this cry of encouragement isn’t just to gather strength to continue with the reading of the next book of Torah. For Jews, this is summoning the strength to continue to face adversity, crisis, and the seemingly perpetual efforts of the nations of the world to exterminate the Jewish people and their state.

I recently read an article about Cyber attackers targeting Iranian oil platforms. My attention was drawn to a particular quote in the article, which was originally published by the British news agency Reuters.

Mohammad Reza Golshani, head of information technology for the Iranian Offshore Oil Company, told Iran’s Mehr news agency that a cyber attack had targeted the offshore platforms’ information networks.

“This attack was planned by the regime occupying Jerusalem (Israel)…

So now the Jews are the regime occupying Jerusalem.” Even this quote from a seemingly innocuous news story takes pot shots at the legitimacy of the Jewish state and the right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. Yes, it takes a great deal of strength to be Jewish and particularly to be Jewish in the Middle East.

But what about the rest of us? More specifically, what about we Christians? Is there any relevancy for us in “Chazak, Chazek, Venitchazek?”

I suppose not specifically, since the traditional reading of the Torah cycle is foreign to most churches. Still, if we widen our focus, I think we can consider the principle behind the statement of encouragement to have some meaning for us.

A life of faith is not an easy one. While unlike the Jews, the rest of the world isn’t actively seeking to destroy Christians and Christianity (although there are some parts of the world where Christians are directly persecuted), we aren’t exactly well-loved, either. That’s to be expected, even of the best of us, since holding to a moral standard isn’t exactly a popular sentiment in a world that worships relativity in its morals and ethics.

But then again, what we are most often criticized for is our faults, not our virtues. We are criticized for our hypocrisy, our hostility, our judgmentalism, our bigotry, our sexism, and so on. Much of the time, our critics are right about us. When we compare our actual behavior to our stated values, we come up short. How often are we “caught” feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, providing water to the thirsty, showing respect for the aged and infirm, comforting the grieving, and so on?

Oh, it’s not that we don’t perform the deeds taught to us by our Master. It’s that we don’t make them central to our lives. It’s embarrassing when we see atheists who outshine us at actually behaving with “Christian values.” Where is our strength under these circumstances?

For me though, the need for strength is in trying to sort out my own unique role and place in the world around me and in the Kingdom of Heaven. To employ a well-known aphorism, I’m “neither fish nor fowl.” My self-declared identity is as a Christian, but if I actually showed up in a church, ten seconds after I opened my mouth, I’d fit in about as well as a square peg in a room full of round holes. The same would go for me attending a synagogue, since I’m only marginally familiar with the actual Hebrew prayers and customs and in any event, my presence would make the missus far more uncomfortable than it would me.

I keep toying with the idea of going back to a church. I’ve got one picked out as a likely candidate, but then, given how embarrassed my wife is at the mere fact that I’m a Christian, my actually attending a church would likely add insult to injury. There are a variety of barriers involved which I won’t go into, but if my wife feels uncomfortable in inviting Jewish friends to our home, how would she feel if I joined a church and then invited a few Christians over?

I frankly don’t see a way around all of this and hence the need for personal encouragement. Be strong, be strong, and may we (or rather I) be strengthened. For that matter, may my wife be strengthened so that she can return to the Jewish community and participate in worshiping God among her people.

If the encouragement is generally for a Jew to continue from one book of Torah to the next, then I’ll interpret it for myself (an arrogant conceit, I must admit) as the encouragement to continue as an individual person of faith from one day to the next. I’ll consider it the strength to continue writing meditations from one day to the next.

Joshua was encouraged by God to be strong and courageous, and he had both God and the Children of Israel to support him in taking the Land of Israel for the Jews as was promised by the God of Abraham. Most married couples who are religious are religious in the same direction, attending the same house of worship, and adhering to the same basic expression of faith, whether that is Christian, Jewish, or anything else. Even many intermarried couples will attend both his house or worship and hers, at least on occasion.

Like I said, I’m neither fish nor fowl. This is a season of beginnings for religious Jews. For me, it’s another day, another morning. How many more should I anticipate? How many more should I plan for? Where is the end of the trail and upon reaching it, will God and I part company or is there a future for both of us together?

Some people mistakenly think they have a natural need for approval and there is nothing they can do to overcome it. The truth is that the adult need for approval is based on demand. If a person decides he needs only his own approval and not that of others, he is able to focus on the question, “What is the proper thing for me to do now?” He does not ask himself, “How will other people look at me?”

This change in focus can be difficult, but once you accept it is possible, you will be able to change your attitude.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Focus On What’s Right, Daily Lift #602”

Good question, Rabbi. “What is the proper thing for me to do now?”

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