Old, New and Holy

We have come to the end of the Book of Exodus.  The passage of time captivates me more than ever, as I have been captive of its slow passage now for many weeks.  More than focusing on the details of this week’s parshah, I am drawn to the words we recite whenever we finish reading a book of Torah: “Chazak, chazak v’nitchazeik – Be strong, be strong, and together we will be strengthened.”

We are strengthened by keeping the words and teachings of Jewish tradition close to our heart, as an anchor rather than a weight, whether we are inspired by them or whether we struggle with them.  In God’s first words to Joshua after the death of Moses, God says: “This Book of Torah shall not depart from your mouth; you shall meditate upon it day and night” (Joshua 1:8). It is taught that the emphasis, “Sefer haTorah hazeh – literally, ‘this Book of Torah’ means that Joshua was actually holding the Torah at the time. This interpretation has a practical consequence that is seen when the oleh laTorah, the person “called” to bless the Torah, comes to the bimah, that person is supposed to hold the etz chayim, the wooden poles on which the scroll is wrapped, when reciting the blessing.   While there are varied customs among Ashkenazim and Sephardim regarding the conclusion of a book of Torah, there is evidence that in France in the 12th-13th centuries it was customary for the Cantor to say “Chazak”- ‘be strong’ – in a loud voice to each person upon finishing their reading from the Torah. Reading Torah – holding it literally and figuratively, and reading it again and again to learn from it anew each time we return to a passage – this is what brings us strength individually and keeps us strong as a people.

The confluence of the Jewish calendar and my life strikes once again. (Or is it just my ongoing search for meaning and connectedness in the Jewish seasons?)  I have completed my own chapter in the book of the journey of my healing and return to full health.  Chazak.  I am strong, gaining strength. I am returning to some of the things that I used to be able to do, those that have either eluded me or have not been permitted to me for some time now.  Nothing earth-shaking, and yet: turning my head to look at the flowering trees…..looking down to read a book in my lap…..taking a nap lying down on the sofa…..cutting the vegetables from our garden for dinner’s salad…….baking challah.  I feel as if I am doing these typical and everyday things again for the very first time.  Rav Avraham Kook, the first chief rabbi of the Holy Land, before Israel became a state and a deeply spiritual thinker, said the following which resonates with me now: “Hayashan yitchadeish v’hechadash yitkadeish – The old shall become new and the new shall become holy.” While sometimes misused to interpret sticking with old, outdated and sometimes oppressive ways as ways to holiness, I believe that the intention of these words is two-fold: not to discard something merely because it is old, and to understand the potential of renewal and growth in every situation.  My old activities, the straightforward movements that to which I never gave thought, once old-hat, are now renewed to me.  Noticing them, giving them attention with gratitude brings the sacred into these simple activities.

Chazak – in the singular, refers to the individual. When we say it for each new yet familiar thing we do or learn, when we recited it after rereading each book of Torah each year, we become strong. Nitchazeik – in the reflexive plural, it is through community that our own strength is sustained.  For me, the love and help from my family and friends that continue to support me on this journey, for the learning and teaching that I continue to enjoy, for the moments of prayer and awe, communal spirit is how we become nitchazeik – strengthened by one another.

For what will you say chazak this week?  May we continue to draw sustenance in the year to come – from our relationships and from our learning.  Kein y’hi ratzon.

[Pekudei 2014 ]

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