Tomorrow morning, Sadie Parker will not only become a Bat Mitzavh, but she will be chanting the final words of the book of Leviticus. And after she does so, all of us present will have the opportunity to observe the Ashkenazic custom and respond to her finishing this book of Torah with the words, "Hizki hizki v'nithazek!" (Note the feminine rendering of "Hazak hazak" since Sadie will be reading). These words resist translation, but might best be rendered as, "Be strong, be strong and we will strengthen one another." The "hazak" declaration is a closure ritual, a performative parallel to the graphic demarcation in the Torah scroll in which after the conclusion of each book we see four blank lines. The largest consecutive white spaces in all of Torah. This is the deep exhale of completion.
This ritual does not stand alone. There is a parallel invocation when one completes a chapter or masechet (volume) of Mishnah or Talmud. In those moments, it is a custom to recite, "Hadran alach v'Hadrach alan," literally "May we return to you and may you return to us." Alternately, the Aramaic word Hadran, like the Hebrew word Hadar, can mean to glorify or beautify. "May our study lift up the light of Torah and may Torah increase our own light." The essence of this double entendre is actually addressed to the sefer, the sacred text itself, and comes as the beginning to a longer concluding prayer. Those of us who completed the four-week Talmud class this past Tuesday had the opportunity to recite these words.
What strikes me about both of these rituals is the explicit mutuality and reflexivity embedded in our relationship to these sacred texts. In the case of the Torah scroll, it is the plural reflexive verb nithazek - we will draw strength. As though the ancient words, the reader, and those present are all bolstered in this intention. And in the case of the Talmudic practice, the intention that we long to return to study the text again, even more so, that the text stays with us beyond our study of it.
As Shavuot approaches and we prepare to begin the book of Numbers, I am touched by the image of Torah as sacred stories that strengthen us, make us more resilient, and call us back to them time and again.
May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.