This coming Shabbat in communities the world over, the public reading of the Sefer Bereshit (the Book of Genesis) will be drawn to a close as we chant, study and quest to find existential meaning in the words of Parashat Vayechi — the final few chapters and verses of the first of our Five Books of Moses.
In many congregations, and most especially in those that follow the traditions of the Jews of Ashkenaz, participants rise for the final verses of the Torah portion and, at the conclusion of the reading, call out together: “Chazak, chazak, venitchazek — Strength! Strength! May we all be strengthened!”
As is the case with so many of our now established and revered minhagim (customs), the genesis and original rationale for engagement in this practice are unclear. Dr. Jeffrey Tigay, in his brief yet masterful essay on the topic (found in the appendixes at the back of the Conservative movement’s remarkably edifying Torah commentary, “Etz Hayim,” page 1504), posits that this tripartite communal declaration might be understood in the following way:
1)The first chazak is addressed to the baal/baalat keriah (the master Torah reader). The community blesses the reader for her/his efforts in facilitating “accurately and pleasantly” the communal chanting of our holy writ.
2)The second chazak is addressed to the person receiving the final aliyah (the recitation of the blessings before and after the reading of Scripture) to the Torah on this special occasion. He/she is blessed to participate often in the religious-spiritual life of the community.
3)And the final word, venitchazek, is directed at the entire community. May each and every member of the kehillah — those who are present and those who are not — “persist, study, read, and complete all the other books, drawing [infinite and endless] strength from the [wise] Torah!”
The great Lithuanian Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829-1908), in his magnum-opus the “Aruch HaShulchan,” shares a quaint insight about the custom of reciting the word chazak three times at the conclusion of the reading of a selection from the Torah. In section 139:15, Epstein writes that the word chazak in gematria has the numerical value of 115. Three times 115 equals 345, which just so happens to be the numeral value of the name Moshe — Moses — the greatest of our prophets and teachers. Thus, in calling out the word chazak after hearing the words of Torah, we remind ourselves of the blessings and obligations that are ours as inheritors and stewards of the profound Mosaic tradition.
I was blessed to spend Hanukkah in Dallas at the International Convention of USY — United Synagogue Youth. Coincidentally, or maybe fortuitously, the theme for this gathering of 1,000-plus Jewish teens was “Chazak, Chazak, VeNitchazek.”
As I watched our youngsters passionately participate in Talmud Torah (study of sacred texts), tefillah (prayer), shirah/ruach (spirited singing and dancing sessions), tikkun olam and gemilut chesed (community service and acts of loving-kindness), not only was I filled with pride and optimism, I was reminded of a powerful passage from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Brachot, 32b):
“Our Rabbis taught: Four things require strength, and they are [study of] Torah, good deeds, prayer and appropriate behavior and conduct (derech eretz). How do we know this regarding Torah and good deeds? Because it says (Book of Joshua 1:7), ‘Just be strong (chazak) and very courageous (v’ematz) to observe and to do according to all the law.’ ‘Be strong’ (chazak) refers to Torah study, while ‘very courageous’ (v’ematz) refers to good deeds.”
Clearly, our rabbis understood that the precursor to engagement in a way of life that is reflective of the teachings of our Torah demands immense strength. It requires that we contemplate the lives of our forbearers — our matriarchs and patriarchs — and find ways, as they did, to display fortitude, courage, audacity, grit, determination and resilience — especially in the face of those who would claim that religious traditions are insipid, vapid and without enduring value.
As we draw the Book of Genesis to a close and again recite the words chazak, chazak, venitchazek, may we each find the strength to make the Torah’s wisdom operative in our lives.
Chazak! Chazak! Chazak!