The words we remember years afterwards often come in unexpected moments. We were just putting on our anoraks to go out, when my uncle Gabi (at least three times removed but close in heart!) said to me: ‘You know what strength is? It’s not being tough; it’s having compassionate values and trying to live by them whatever.’
Tomorrow we’ll complete the public reading of Bereshit, Genesis, the first book of the Torah. Most of us will follow the Ashkenazi custom of calling out:
Chazak, chazak, venitchazek: Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.
Jeffrey Tigay writes that the custom began in 19-century Germany where the briefer form ‘Be strong and let us summon our strength’ was used, building on the earlier, even shorter ‘Be strong’ called out to the person who read the last verses of one of the books of the Torah. In the Middle Ages poets and scribes would close their compositions with sentences like ‘Blessed be God who gives strength to the weary.’ Copying manuscripts was exhausting work. (See his essay in the Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, p. 1504)
Now, as once again we enter cautious days with Covid infections rising fast, the full threefold greeting feels timely: we need our physical strength, our emotional and spiritual strength, and the strength we find through each other.
With regard to the first, all I have is a prayer. May we do our sensible best to stay healthy and keep others safe. May God give strength to everyone supporting us and the wellbeing of all our society. May we appreciate them and do our utmost to make our own contribution. May everyone who needs healing be met with kindness and skill. May our health and care services be sufficiently financed, personned and valued. May God, hanoten laya’ef koach, who gives strength to the weary, give us health, energy and endurance.
As for emotional and spiritual strength, each of us has our own special path to that inner reservoir of life-giving waters which is never sealed off but frequently hard to access. For some it’s music. For others it’s yoga, baking, dog walking, birdsong, tai chi, and dare it say, even prayer. ‘What’s the cure for a sore heart?’ asks the Talmud, before answering ‘Torah, the Tree of Life.’
People sometimes ask me: ‘I’m going through tough times. My mother, father, partner, child… is ill. Where can I get the strength to look after everybody?’ Maybe it’s not the right response but I find myself asking ‘What are the things you like to do which truly sustain you week by week?’ Whatever the answer, (and no one has so far told me it’s robbing the bank) I say, ‘However great the pressure, try to maintain time for that.’
So, today, if possible, please at least sometimes keep doing what leads you on the inner journey to that place from where living waters flow back into the weary, dehydrated spirit.
I’m unsure how to translate venitchazek: is it ‘Let’s strengthen one another’ or ‘Let’s find strength in each other’? But it amounts to the same. ‘What I miss most,’ a doctor told me, referring to the cumulative impact of lockdowns, isolation and social distancing, ‘Are those informal chats with colleagues. I’d get so much support from them.’
Thank goodness at this point in time we can gather, in small numbers in our homes and cafes, on walks, in places of prayer and, if not in person, at least online – though that’s never quite the same. But wherever and however, it’s the ordinary things which matter: kind words, a listening heart, a small gift, a phone call, an encouraging word, even a passing greeting in the street.