Religious Life

True Security: Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazek

“True Security: Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazek”
27 Adar 5777 • Vayakhel-Pekudei • Shabbat Hachodesh • March 25, 2017
Rabbi Alexander Davis

What do we do when we finish a book? Talk about it in book group. Return it to the library. Start a new book. As Jews, we do something else: we rise and call out, “chazak chazak v’nitchazek strength, strength, may we be strengthened.” With these words, we concluded the Book of Exodus this Shabbat. But why these words? And what message do they contain for us this week?

I want to begin to answer to by telling you four short vignettes from my past week.

First: This week I booked tickets to go to London. It was not an act of solidarity. I made the reservation before the latest terrorist attack. I am going on a family trip for my nephew’s bar mitzvah. Now, I know from experience having travelled to Israel that it is scarier to hear news like this and be far away than to actually be there. At the same time, when I heard the news, I looked on the map to see where the attack was in relation to the sites we want to tour. And I thought to myself, “Do I really want to take my kids there? Is any place safe?

Second: This past week we ran a security drill here at Beth El. With our security team lead by Yoni Bundt and in conjunction with the local police, we practiced our weekday procedures. In the coming weeks, we will actually be running a drill on a Shabbat morning.

We should be pleased with our level of preparedness. There have been many physical changes to our facility you won’t notice and others on the way, like bollards by the front door that you will see. We are grateful for the support of state agencies and coordination with Jewish agencies. But it is sad to me, no matter where the threat originates, even if it’s one of our own, that this is our world today. It is a new reality that even as it makes us more secure, leaves some feeling more vulnerable.

Third: This past week I joined a meeting organized by the JCRC with Senator Klobaucher. She condemned the rise of anti-Semitism and racism as not Minnesotan and pledged Federal support. In the meeting, Sami Rachamim spoke about Jewish students on campus feeling squeezed. Between BDS on the left and swastikas on the right, some don’t feel welcome or secure on campus.

Fourth, I participated in a meeting between rabbis and Somali Imam’s this past week, again organized by the JCRC. I was particularly struck by Imam after Imam saying that their community is living in fear. With the travel ban on and off, they wake up every morning thinking to themselves, “What’s it going to be today?” One Imam speaking as a father said he tells his son every morning before heading off to school, “if something should happen today, know that we are here for you. You have teachers and adults who love and support you.”

In different ways and for different reasons, each of these stories traces its way back to the theme of fear I spoke about fear on the High Holy Days. Here we are, a half a year later and the topic still resonates.

How should we respond? Some Jews want to fight fire with fire.

Do you know what a sh’mir is? No, I am not referring to what we put on our bagel at kiddush. It is an open-handed smack to the face. How about khsime? It means signature. Not your John Hancock, but putting your signature (your fist) on someone’s face. These are Yiddish terms used by a group of activists to describe their response to increasing threats. Calling themselves antifa or anti fascists, they are organizing to fight the alt right. They say, too long we have condemned anti-Semitism. Now is time to confront anti-Semites.

Now as a rabbi, I am delighted that they are turning to Jewish vocabulary and Jewish symbols like the Golem in their banners and slogans. And I am happy to learn about MuJews, Muslims and Jews coming together to fight a common enemy. And I will admit that I get a certain pleasure hearing that someone clobbered the alt right figurehead, Richard Spencer. But we cannot condone an approach that resorts to physical violence. It was wrong in Kahana’s day with Kach and it is wrong and unhelpful now. This is not the kind of strength we need.

So let’s return to our phrase, “chazak chazak v’nitchazek.”

What does it mean? And what does it mean to us? “Strength, strength you shall be strengthened.” In its original context in the Book of Joshua it is about physical strength and security. Joshua said it to encourage the Israelites as they head into battle. And that is not insignificant. At a time when many feel vulnerable, we need security systems and drills and self-defense. But in the context of shul, it means something more.

Chazak chazak is a prayer, a proclamation and a promise.

It is a prayer. Reading Torah is easy. Living Torah is harder: welcome the stranger; honor your parents; set aside work and rest (Shabbat); do not mistreat the poor. It is hard to find time and energy. It is hard to extend our hand and open our heart. When we say chazak at the conclusion of a Torah reading, therefore, we are praying for courage to live according to the teachings we espouse. We pray for strength to overcome our fears, our inertia, our misgivings, strength to take on a new Jewish tradition, to adopt a new mitzvah.

Chazak chazak is a prayer. It is also a proclamation. It’s a proclamation that says learning is critical. Over and over we heard from the Somali Imams: in the absence of knowledge, there is fear. For learning strengthens our identity and reinforces our values. It opens our minds, challenges our perspectives and dispels myths. We must, therefore, dedicate ourselves to learning.

Finally, chazak chazak is a promise, “we will be strengthened. We will overcome.” As Jews and as Americans, this is not the first time we have faced adversity. Since our earliest days as a people, we have encountered obstacles and overcome them. We have stock in courage and a storehouse of steel. So when we rise and pronounce “v’nitchazek,” we are promising each other, “I am here for you. We will stand strong together.” One of the Imam’s said to me, “if your cemetery should be desecrated, I want to be one of the first three calls you make. I want you to know, I’ve got your back.” That is, “v’nitchazek stronger together.”

To be sure, walls and weapons have their place. But we need something else.

Chazak, we are strengthened by knowledge that comes from a learning that is expansive, critical and sacred.

Chazak, we are strengthened by prayers that instill in us compassion, that firms our resolve, that affirms our values and express our hopes.

V’nitchazek and we are strengthened by coming together as a Jewish community, coming together across faith communities, coming together as Minnesotans in acts of solidarity and support.

With this understanding, chazak chazak v’nitchazek will not just be a slogan chanted at the end of a book but a way of life that spreads the Shalom of Shabbat to the other days of the week.

Shabbat Shalom!