Tag Archives: Torah

“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.

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Belated D’var Torah: Parashat Noah

6 Oct
A Sefer Torah, the traditional form of the Heb...

A Sefer Torah, the traditional form of the Hebrew Bible, is a scroll of parchment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our parasha last week, Noah, contains the famous story of the flood. However, I would like to focus instead on two words that border the flood narrative. The words in question appear in a number of other places in the Torah. More often than not, the appearance of these words is immediately followed by a change in relationship between God and the character who is involved in the interaction. For example, when Abraham is prepared to sacrifice his son, going so far as to raise the knife in his hand, an angel calls out to him. Avraham responds,  הנני (Hineini/Here I am). In the book of Shemot, which we will read in a few months, God calls out to Moshe, and Moshe answers הנני. Although I am not going to discuss all of the examples, it should be clear that הנני is a demarcation of an altered relationship. Assuming that interpretation of the word, why in our parasha does God utter הנני twice, when the subsequent relationship does not fundamentally change vis a vis the person to whom God is speaking?

The first appearance (actually second, but the first is probably for emphasis), appears in chapter six:

יז  וַאֲנִי, הִנְנִי מֵבִיא אֶת-הַמַּבּוּל מַיִם עַל-הָאָרֶץ, לְשַׁחֵת כָּל-בָּשָׂר אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ רוּחַ חַיִּים, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם:  כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-בָּאָרֶץ, יִגְוָע. 17 And I, behold, I do bring the flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; every thing that is in the earth shall perish.

It would appear that the verse itself could function properly without the הנני. In other words, we might even be able to propose the possibility that the word is superfluous. Fortunately, Rashi, by way of the midrashic work Bereshit Rabbah, explains that God is affirming God’s role in the flood. Already God has instructed Noah to build the ark, down to the very dimensions, and will in coming verses instruct Noah on the numbers and types of animals that must accompany Noah and his family. Further, Rashi explains that God is acknowledging that what has been put in motion, and the rapid building of the ark is because God Himself is pushing the process forward. Noah and God’s relationship however, appears to be unchanged.

Following the flood, in chapter nine, God decides to create a covenant, promising to never again destroy the Earth by water:

ט  וַאֲנִי, הִנְנִי מֵקִים אֶת-בְּרִיתִי אִתְּכֶם, וְאֶת-זַרְעֲכֶם, אַחֲרֵיכֶם. 9 ‘As for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you

Turning once again to Rashi for assistance. Rashi sends us back to his comment on the earlier verse. Here he quotes Midrash Tanchuma which puts forth the idea that Noah was worried about fulfilling the commandment of being fruitful without some assurance from God that there would never again be a mass destruction of humanity. God is actually recognizing Noah’s apprehension and knows that it is necessary to provide an active promise, just as God had earlier vocalized His part in the flood, even as Noah had until that point done all of the heavy lifting (pardon the pun). Granted, God does not permit Noah additional dominion over the Earth, I maintain the the relationship is fundamentally unchanged. So while we may have solved, with Rashi’s help, the problem of the dual appearance of הנני, and its lack of a subsequent relationship change, I am not entirely satisfied.

There must be an additional or supplemental understanding.

On both days of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur the leader of the Mussaf service intones a long personal supplication entitled הנני.  That person has been accepted the awe inspiring job of representing the assembled as they stand before God in prayer on those magnificent days. The chazzan is effectively laying everything on the table in a stand-up fashion. God in our parasha stands alone in the moments of uttering הנני. God or the chazan could remove themselves from the circumstances at hand, leaving everybody else to deal with the situation as it arises. Deriving from those assumptions, I think that God in our Parsha is demonstrating responsible action in both creating and solving situations in which God is significantly involved, and the use of הנני serves as God’s emphasizing the lesson that God wishes to impart.

Shavua tov.