Pekudei: Celebration or Rededication?

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek!

“Be strong, be strong, and we will be strong!”

The weekly portion we read this week is Parshat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38), which comprises the concluding chapters of Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus.

As the ba’al koreh, the Torah reader, approaches the final verses, we stand. And when he pronounces the last words, we exclaim loudly and with dramatic flourish: “Chazak, chazak…,” “Be strong, be strong…”

There are two ways of understanding this custom. Possibly, we are enthusiastically expressing our sense of celebration at having completed the second book of the Bible. Or perhaps, recognizing that we have at least minimally failed to understand and appreciate the book just completed, we now assert our intention to do better next time.

Are we celebrating our recent achievement, or, acknowledging the inadequacy of our study of Shemot/Exodus, are we rededicating ourselves to achieve an improved understanding of Vayikra/Leviticus?

There is a passage in the Talmud (Berachot 32b) which provides the beginning of an approach to resolving this question. It reads:

Rabbi Chama bar Chanina said, “If a person finds that he has prayed but has not been answered, he should pray and pray again, as it is written: ‘Hope in the Lord. Be strong and of good courage, and hope in the Lord!’ (Psalms 27:14).”

One can understand Rabbi Chama’s advice as a suggestion of persistence, of stubborn repetition of the prayer again and again until it is heard. Or, on the other hand, perhaps Rabbi Chama is urging those who have been disappointed in prayer (and which one of us has not suffered such disappointment?) to reinvigorate their prayers with deeper emotion, with greater urgency, in clearer detail, or with a more effective vocabulary.

If we adopt the latter view, we will have learned the lesson that dedication to prayer must entail a modicum of renewed dedication, of innovation, and yes, of creativity. It cannot just be the “same old, same old.”

When I reflect further on Rabbi Chama’s advice, I begin to realize that understanding him might not be an either/or choice, either a call for dedicated persistence or a plea for renewal. It may very well be both. Yes, be persistent, repeat the old prayers for they may not have been in vain, but also try some new approaches to pray.

This realization helps me return to the “Chazak, chazak…” that we will exclaim in unison this Shabbat. It is a retrospective back to our months-long journey through Shemot/Exodus. We celebrate the fact that we attended synagogue every Shabbat and heard the holy words. Many of us studied the text on our own, shnayim mikra v’echad targum, twice the Hebrew original and once the Aramaic translation of Onkelos. Some of us studied Rashi’s commentary as well. Some delved into the vast ocean of commentaries and super-commentaries. We all have much to celebrate.

But we cannot rest on our laurels. None of us was perfect. We all can improve the time we spend and the intellectual energy we devote to our study of the next chumash, of Leviticus, which offers challenges and rewards of its own. “Chazak, chazak…” is prospective. We commit to strengthen ourselves, to courageously resolve to do better with Vayikra than we did with Shemot. And we know full well that when we exclaim, “Chazak, chazak…” several months from now after completing Vayikra, with the help of the Almighty, we will have much to celebrate but also must find the strength to rededicate ourselves with more intensity to the next “big book,” Bamidbar, Numbers.

Might I suggest that this is why we repat the word chazak, “be strong” twice: once to find the strength to celebrate our past accomplishments while recognizing our imperfections and a second time to pray for the strength to re-dedicate ourselves to greater success in our future Torah study.

Permit me to share with you another Talmudic text along with a Chassidic interpretation that support my way of thinking. The talmudic text is found in Tractate Nedarim 38a. It is based upon a biblical text that we read just two weeks ago in Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 31:18). It reads, “And He gave Moshe, when He finished addressing him, k’kaloto ledaber ito, at Mount Sinai, two tablets of stone…”

The Talmud suggests that the Hebrew phrase for “He finished” is k’kaloto, which calls to mind the Hebrew word kallah or “bride,” and thus we have this talmudic gem:

“This teaches us that Moshe studied the Torah and quickly forgot it, studied it repeatedly and forgot it again and again, until the Almighty gave the Torah to him as a gift, as a bride to a groom.”

The great early Chassidic master, Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (yes, the same Chernobyl where the nuclear disaster occurred not so very long ago), offers a very instructive and original interpretation of this talmudic passage. I must give credit to the late Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, of blessed memory, who was my dear mentor and friend, who was a descendant of the great Reb Menachem Nachum, and who introduced me to his exquisite work, Maor Einayim.

I summarize and paraphrase the master and author:

“Love is never constant. It ebbs and flows. There are moments when love is intense, perfect, and seemingly will last forever. The moments after the chupah, immediately after the wedding ceremony, when the bride and groom are finally alone for the first time, is a high point in a marriage. As time goes on, the emotions of those moments diminish, but not forever. There are times when the ecstatic love re-emerges and is renewed and often heightened.

“So too was the Torah like a bride to Moshe. Upon his first introduction to the Heavenly Torah, he was ecstatic. But that emotion soon faded. He forgot that “peak experience.” So, he studied more and not only regained the original ecstasy but surpassed it. He studied and forgot, studied again and forgot. Indeed, the relationship between Moshe and the Torah mirrored the relationship between a bride and a groom.”

And so it is with all of us, in our marriages, in close friendships, and in our relationships with the Almighty and His Torah. There are peak moments which we celebrate, but those moments fade, and return only with rededication.

With the completion this Shabbat of one chumash, we have reached a summit. And there is much to celebrate. Chazak!

But then we realize that this sense of satisfaction, this “love-experience,” will fade with time. And so, we rededicate ourselves to cultivate another love experience, when we again will celebrate and, in just a few short months, will again exclaim, “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek!