This week we conclude reading the Book of Leviticus.
We read: “These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.” And then we say what we always say after concluding one of the Torah’s five books: “Hazak hazak v’nithazek—Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened.”
It is a curious formulation. We say these words so frequently that we rarely pause to contemplate their meaning. Why do we wish for strength when completing the reading of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy? Why do we not hope for compassion? Is not this one of the great purposes of the Torah: to bring more compassion to our broken world?
Perhaps it is because that little can be accomplished without strength. We cannot bring compassion; we cannot bring healing without strength. We require strength, and much of it, to even bring a small measure of repair to our aching world.
And why do we repeat the word “hazak—be strong”? It is because we also require strength to open up the next book of the Torah. It demands an extraordinary amount of strength, and faith, to say year in and year out that everything we need to discover about ourselves and our world can be found in these five books. What a remarkable statement of faith we affirm.
In the face of all the 21st century’s newness, and the information that can now be gained from our iPhones or by just staring at our computer screens, we say something countercultural and perhaps even counterintuitive. We shout: more can be learned from these ancient words that we still stubbornly chant in a language we continue to struggle to understand. More truths can be gleaned from words written in a seemingly arcane way on a parchment that is so obviously removed from our fast paced digital world.
Tomorrow’s truth can be uncovered in yesterday’s words.
Reading the Torah requires the strength to say that sometimes doing something the old-fashioned way is the right way—or at the very least, can lead us to the right answers or perhaps even better to say, the right questions. Asking the right questions are the beginning to finding the correct path.
I very much doubt these words meant the same thing to the rabbis who long ago added this formula to the conclusion of reading a Torah’s book, but it is what they can mean to us today.
And why do we conclude this formula with the first person plural word “nithazek—may we be strengthened”? That answer may very well be the same as it always was. We are unified by the Torah. Our community is strengthened by the Torah reading. The Jewish world is brought together by this ritual. Every synagogue throughout the world is reading the same Torah portion.
For at least this very brief moment we are all on the same page. While we may be interpreting it in radically different ways we are unified by the words we chant. Jews everywhere begin with these same verses. The unity that too often eludes us is found on the parchment that is unrolled before us.
We are strengthened by the Torah. We are unified by this sacred scroll. We may very well feel divided on Thursday but on Shabbat morning we are brought together by this act of reading from the scroll. When the Torah scroll is lifted we become one people. Perhaps this is only momentary, but we are unified nonetheless.
We hope and pray. May this unity continue to blossom.
Hazak hazak v’nithazek!