“Be Strong, Be Strong, and Let Us Strengthen One Another.”
March 11, 2016
Temple B’nai Chaim
Rabbi Rachel Bearman
This week, we conclude the book of Exodus and move to everyone’s favorite book of the bible, Leviticus! Tomorrow morning, we’ll hear the final paragraphs of the final chapter of Exodus chanted by not one but two young men as they celebrate their transitions to Jewish adulthood. One of my weekly responsibilities is rolling the Torah so that when our students step up to the podium on Saturday morning and look at the scroll, they are met with the correct text. Guys, I promise we’re all set for tomorrow.
This week, as I rolled the Torah to the correct portion, I looked for the specific textual “landmarks” that help me quickly identify where we are in the story. Fortunately, nothing is easier to spot than the end of one book and the beginning of the next because each book of the Torah is separated by a significant space in the column. The layout of most columns in the Torah include small spaces, basically the equivalent of hitting the “tab” key a few times. Some sections of Torah, like the Song of the Sea, employ an entirely different style of layout which marks the unit of text as something significant or special. But, the spaces that appear between Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy aren’t small like the more common tabs or flashy like the special sections of the Torah. Instead, these transitions are simply blank space.
As I found this week’s portion and made sure that the scroll was ready for our Bar Mitzvah students tomorrow, I kept thinking about that blank space. It’s something that I’ve seen any number of times before, but, this time, for some reason, it seemed larger and more important than it had before. I recalled that as we finish chanting the last verse of any book of Torah we are meant to say, “Chazak, Chazak, V’nit-chazaek.” “Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.” This is one of my favorite Jewish sayings, and I believe it is one of the most important imperatives within our tradition. And, as I think about the fact that we are meant to say these words just as we reach and face these biblical transitions, these blank spaces, I have to conclude that the rabbis, as they so often did, understood that ritual can be a very effective metaphor for life.
In our lives, it is sometimes easy and sometimes incredibly difficult to identify and anticipate transitions. Some, like becoming a Bar Mitzvah, is obviously predictable as we have to work toward this goal for years; others, like losing a job, can come upon us suddenly. In these moments, whether they are expected or unexpected, we are forced from the clarity of a well delineated life to the blank space that precedes the next section of our lives. Each chapter, the one that we leaving behind and, to some extent, the one that we are moving toward is something that we can understand and perhaps even plan for; but it is the moment of transition, when we are living without a script and find ourselves without the words that lead us to the next verse, the next moment, the next experience that can seem dangerous. It is then that we feel the exhilaration, the fear, the freedom, the aimlessness of that blank space. It is then that we are called upon to remember our rabbis’ words- “Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.”
By instructing us on how we must cross the divide between biblical books, the rabbis were actually telling us how to survive the power and danger of transitions- when each moment is one of becoming, of creating, of changing- when nothing grounds us, and we are faced with endless possibilities. “Chazak, Chazak, V’nit-chazaek.” We stand up. We stand up stronger and straighter, and we cling to one another. This isn’t a paradox; it is the foundation of our community. In times of vulnerability and of potential, we work to strengthen ourselves while also holding out our hands to others. Our weakness is absorbed by the strength of our community, and our strength is shared by those who struggle. “Chazak, Chazak, V’nit-chazaek.” It is both a saying and a prayer. Let us be strong. Let us be strong. And, let us strengthen one another. Amen.