There is a custom that, upon finishing a book of the Torah as part of the weekly reading cycle, the community says “hazak, hazak, ve’nithazek!” “Be strong, be strong, may we all be strengthened!”
We have the opportunity to practice this this Shabbat, as we finish reading the Book of Genesis. In this week’s Torah portion we have the end of the Joseph story, culminating in the death of Jacob and finally the death of Joseph. But really when we end Genesis, we also end a long multi-generational family saga. Next week, when we begin the book of Exodus, the Torah’s narrative shifts to the national saga of slavery and redemption.
So we pause, as we mark that transition, and offer that three-word phrase.
The custom of doing so dates back to the middle ages, and it can have several interpretations. One can be that we are congratulating ourselves on completing a stage of the reading and preparing ourselves for the next stage. Another could be that it is a prayer to the effect of, may the teachings of the Torah that we have just read be strong within us, and may we be strengthened by the teachings to come. Another could be a recognition that we as individuals are strengthened by the words of the Torah, and therefore, based on those teachings, we are obligated to strengthen one another.
In thinking of this phrase right now, there is something to the repetition of the word hazak as part of it. On the one hand, this could be understood as an emphatic. To me, though, I understand it as frequency.
As we continue to navigate the pandemic, as we continue to deal with that uncertainty, we have needed to be strong for ourselves and others now more so than in recent history. The threat of a deadly virus, now with multiple variants, has forced us to alter our behavior, take on new practices, be mindful of who is around us and how far away, stay at home, rely on technology, adopt new cleaning protocols, get a vaccine, and continue to wear masks. Combine this with feelings of fear, isolation, anxiety, and loneliness. It is exhausting.
We do this to protect ourselves and protect our community. We haven’t just had to be strong, we’ve had to be strong and strong and strong and strong–hazak hazak.
And, in order to do so, it is necessary to take care of ourselves. And that is where the third word of the phrase comes in–ve’nithazek. We can not be strong if we are not strengthened in some way. We can not show up for others if we do not show up for ourselves.
So I invite you to ask yourself, how have you been able to be strengthened? How have you been able to take care of yourself? What do you do for you? It is not selfish, it is necessary.
I have realized recently that I feel like I’m running out of steam. I feel like I am getting sloppy, inattentive, and just plain tired. The novelty of technology is wearing off and I am deeply missing being together and the casual connections and conversations that happen. Nothing in the past year and a half has given me more meaning that being able to be present and care for our congregation during this difficult time. And, I realize, I need a break.
Beginning in mid-February, I will be taking a six-week sabbatical. Not many folks know but I had a three-month sabbatical on the calendar for the first three months of 2021. (TBH has generously granted me six months, which I had planned to take in two three-month chunks.) But because of the needs of the community, and the fact there wasn’t much to do for a sabbatical during Covid, the Board and I agreed that I would postpone it. I still stand by that decision. And now, I’m going to take some of that time to rest and recharge. I don’t have any particular plans yet, outside of just stepping away and attending the Reconstructionist movement convention in March, but maybe that is enough.
I thank you all for your support in advance of this, and I would encourage you all to do what you need to do to take care of yourselves. We are not living through an easy time. Unlike the reading of the Torah, it is very unclear as to when Covid will end. We will continue to need to be resilient. And in order to do that, we need to do what we can to nurture ourselves.
Be strong, be strong, and may we all do what we need to do to be strengthened.