Day in and day out in the army, somebody somewhere can be overheard delivering these two words. Often they follow a complaint about any number of potential issues or a minor injury. Frankly, there are plenty of opportunities to be on the giving and receiving end of that phrase. All of the “chazak” got me thinking about instances in the Tanakh where being חזק is emphasized. Two came immediately to mind.
First, Pharoah. The Torah tells us repeatedly that God has hardened Pharoah’s heart, or that Pharoah’s heart has been hardened. Legitimately, this leads to important theological discussions about the implications of free choice, but for my purposes, I want to think about what being “chazak” actually means (other words are also used to describe Pharoah’s heart). Pharoah’s Egypt suffers tremendously under the weight of the plagues, but Pharoah’s heart is hardened, either to the suffering of his own people or to the plight of the Israelites who are laboring under the yoke of slavery, yearning for freedom, and longing to serve God. The ability to ignore pain and physical suffering is seen as an attribute in the army, in which case Pharoah may have made a heck of a soldier. It is just that, the ability to ignore, not necessarily more sinister underlying intentions. In the face of the plagues, Pharoah must have been seriously committed to his goal of tremendous building projects by way of withering slave labor. Soldiers enduring physical hardships are motivated by a sense of mission and commitment to each other and are consequently able to ignore the discomfort that they are facing. Thus, while I am not necessarily invested in redeeming Pharoah’s character, the fact that he was “chazak” has a different resonance for me when I look through the lens of army service.
Second, Joshua. In the opening verses of Joshua(1:5-6), he is instructed to be “chazak v’emetz,” strong and courageous, a motif that continues throughout the first chapter(1: 18). Joshua is on the cusp of leading the Israelite warriors into the battles that will ultimately result in the conquest of the land. Fortunately I am currently lacking experience in this area, something that I hope will remain true, and I can only imagine the strength that might be needed to undertake such a task. We herald Joshuah’s “chazak” as a tremendous attribute, especially as his leadership follows that of Moshe. Joshua must have the physical and mental strength to be a field general while serving also as a head-of-state. It is almost as if the narrator of that first chapter understands that Joshua, rightfully so, has plenty about which to be frightened or worried, and yet he must set those thoughts aside for the good of the people and the mission of conquest. In this area, I can perhaps partially understand why Joshua’s strength is both necessary and admirable. Throughout training thus far, doubts crop up in my mind. Will I be able to do this when it counts, what about my personal views, what about the soldiers next to me, am I right for this mission? Pushing those thoughts aside, saving them for later, requires equally as much strength, if not more, than ignoring physical suffering.
It is possible to exist in Pharoah’s model, which constitutes ignoring personal physical suffering for the sake of the mission (even though we do not like Pharoah’s application). It is equally possible to push away fear and internal doubts like Joshua, at least temporarily, if they are going to detract from the fulfillment of the larger goal. The next time that I either deliver or receive the Hebrew phrase תהיה חזק “be strong” I hope that I will be able to keep these two applications in mind.