Tag Archives: Israelites

“Be Strong”

26 Jan

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.

D’var Torah: Parashat Shlach L’cha

31 May

Among other beautiful aspects of living in the modern State of Israel is the ability to relate to some elements of the Torah in a more concrete fashion. Walking the land, breathing the air, and witnessing the change of seasons adds a perspective to Biblical narratives that cannot be as fully experienced in other locales. More on this shortly.

Our parasha this week opens with God commanding Moshe to send forth spies from the camp of Bnei Yisrael, then situated in Paran, to scope out the promised land. Moses wants these men to observe the agricultural, military, and psychological character of the land that will soon need conquering. As evidence of their findings, the spies, in chapter thirteen, return with the fruits of the land:

כג  וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד-נַחַל אֶשְׁכֹּל, וַיִּכְרְתוּ מִשָּׁם זְמוֹרָה וְאֶשְׁכּוֹל עֲנָבִים אֶחָד, וַיִּשָּׂאֻהוּ בַמּוֹט, בִּשְׁנָיִם; וּמִן-הָרִמֹּנִים, וּמִן-הַתְּאֵנִים. 23 And they came unto the valley of Eshcol, and cut down from thence a branch with one cluster of grapes, and they bore it upon a pole between two; they took also of the pomegranates, and of the figs

Not surprisingly, the silhouette of two men carrying a large cluster of grapes is the symbol of the Tourism Ministry of Israel who announced this week that they are seeking to attract ten million tourists annually, ten million people to experience the land with their own senses. The story famously goes on to detail the negative report given by ten of the twelve spies, and the punishment incurred thereof.

Grapes ripening on the vine.

Grapes ripening on the vine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So where do the Ministry of Tourism, Parashat Shlach L’cha, and I intersect? Between my yeshiva and the closest junction is a vineyard next to the road. When I arrived in August the vines were drooping, laden with their lusciously tempting ripeness. After the harvest, the vines were pruned. All winter long, the barren vines bore the brunt of the Gush Etzion winter, driving rain, snow, fog, and blistering wind. In recent weeks, the vines have flourished once again, preparing to once again produce the raw material needed for making wine. Upon reading the following verse, also in chapter thirteen:

כ  וּמָה הָאָרֶץ הַשְּׁמֵנָה הִוא אִם-רָזָה, הֲיֵשׁ-בָּהּ עֵץ אִם-אַיִן, וְהִתְחַזַּקְתֶּם, וּלְקַחְתֶּם מִפְּרִי הָאָרֶץ; וְהַיָּמִים–יְמֵי, בִּכּוּרֵי עֲנָבִים. 20 and what the land is, whether it is fat or lean, whether there is wood therein, or not. And be ye of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land.’–Now the time was the time of the first-ripe grapes

my first thought was of this vineyard. Although the grapes on the vines now are not fully ripe, they could be plucked from the vine and eaten. Suddenly the parasha took on a new dimension, speaking not of abstract places and names, or random agricultural processes, but of a physical reality that has marked the passage of time over this year in yeshiva. The Ministry of Tourism thrives on these moments, bringing the Torah to life, enlightening new perspectives on old stories, and getting visitors excited about this country and its offerings.

Places in the Tanakh do not have to be abstract places on a map, they can be visited,  the seven species tasted, and ancient trails hiked. Whether you live in Israel, visit Israel, or want to, on your next walk to the bus stop, or trip to another city, take a moment to consider the three-dimensionality of life in Israel, as we continue, in the steps of the spies, to scope out and build the land.

Shabbat shalom.