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P'kudei 2023

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

This week we conclude reading from the book of Exodus with the double portions of Vayakheil and P’kudei. When we come to the last portion in a book of Torah, we Jews have an interesting tradition. After the Torah is read, we raise it up high, turn it around to show the words of the Torah to the congregation, and say the Hebrew words, chazak, chazak, v’nitchaziek  – “be strong, be strong, and we shall be strengthened.”

Strong and strength are words that in Hebrew can be said in at least three different ways. Chazakmight be the most common, although a second word, ko-ach, is also used a lot. So is its Yiddish equivalent, koyach. When I was a kid, and my mother would feel weak or would lack the ability to physically do something, she’d often say, “Oy, I just don’t have the koyach for this.” As my parents aged and grew weaker, my mother’s frequent refrain was, “We have no koyach for that.” We even hear the word ko-ach in our morning worship. We praise God who gives “strength to the weary,” when we say baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, hanotien laya-eif ko-ach.

The third word, used much less frequently, is gaver. This one, too, shows up in our morning worship, in the same set of prayers in which we praise God for giving strength to the weary. Just two prayers before we say, baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, hameichin mitzadei gaver, “we praise you, God, for strengthening our steps.” The more common way we see gaver used, however, isn’t with God giving us strength. It’s in a name – the name Gabriel. “B” and “V” are often the same letter in Hebrew – our kids know them as bet and vet. The only difference is that one has a dot in it and one does not. So believe me when I say that Gabriel comes from gaver. And El refers to God – think of all the names with El at the end: Michael, Uriel, Rafael, Daniel, Emmanuel, Nathaniel, Joel, Israel, Samuel, Ariel, and so many more. Gabriel means “God is my strength.”

I have often wondered why Hebrew gives us three different words to refer to strong or strength. And I have concluded that it’s because there are three different kinds of strengths:

  • Physical strength
  • Emotional or mental strength
  • Spiritual strength

Ko-ach­, perhaps, refers to physical strength. Maybe I got this from my mother’s use of koyach, but its use in our morning worship affirms this interpretation. This prayer was originally written in the 12thcentury in Germany and is based on a passage in the book of Isaiah. There it appears parallel to the word vigor – God giving strength to the weary and vigor to the weak.

Gaver, for me, is the word associated with emotional or mental strength. It reminds me of the story of the four angels who accompany us as we sleep – Uriel who brings us God’s light is behind us; Rafael who brings us God’s healing is in front of us; Michael who reminds us of our own Godliness is to our right; and Gabriel who brings us God’s strength is to our left. They stay with us all night, protecting us, and allowing us to get up in the morning. And for me, most importantly, the presence of these angels reminds us that we are never alone – that there is emotional support for us all the time.

This leaves chazak, which I associate with spiritual strength, what all need during these very trying days. When we lift the Torah high and recite the words chazak, chazak, v’nitchaziek  – “be strong, be strong, and we shall be strengthened,” I come away sensing that through Torah, I gain spiritual strength. When I study Torah, when I live the words of Torah, when I chant from the Torah – each one of these strengthens my soul and draws me closer to God. This is one of the reasons we teach our students about bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, by showing how when Abraham was recovering from a medical procedure, three angels visited him. And we teach them that Torah commands us not only to visit the sick, but also to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and house the homeless. As we teach these important lessons, we hope that we not give them Jewish values, but that we also nurture their Jewish souls and strengthen their Jewish spirits.

Our Mi Shebeirach list is long. So many in our community and their loved ones are seriously ill. Moreover, members have recently suffered the death of their loved ones. Teens and young adults are suffering with mental health challenges that have reached epidemic levels.

Ko-ach, gaver, hazak – I pray that on this Shabbat and the days and weeks ahead, we always know strength of body, of mind, and of spirit. And that we also recognize Judaism’s gifts in helping us strengthen each of these parts of ourselves and each other. Shabbat shalom.

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyar 5784