What Does Star Wars Have to Do with Finishing a Book of the Torah?
In the seven Star Wars movies the saying, “May the Force be with you” is used sixteen times. “May the Force be with us” is used twice, as is “The Force will be with you.” The phrases were all used to convey/send/wish/pray for strength and the ultimate good for the person or people being addressed.
I don’t know too much about the Star Wars movies, but I do know that this sounds very similar to what we say when we finish reading a book of Torah in the synagogue. When each of the books of Torah are finished the congregation rises and says, “hazak hazak venitchazeik” which means “Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!” I am not suggesting that our tradition comes from Obi-Wan Kenobi, but the reverse could very well be true. The sayings probably originate from Yoav, King David’s general who said, “Be strong and let us summon up our strength for the sake of our people and the towns of our God.” (2 Samuel 10-12)
Why do we need this force or strength with us when we finish a book of Torah? To answer this question let’s look at three possible answers which are not mutually exclusive.
The simplest answer is that in medieval times the Torah was held upright while being read so that the whole congregation could see the scroll. This was obviously a difficult task which took strength. (By the way, since the reader physically took hold of the wooden handles, called atzei chayim, of the Torah, today the person reciting the prayer over the reading of the Torah also holds the handles.) Continued strength was wished for the person after a hard job done. Now we just wish the person a “yasher koach” which is used as a congratulatory phrase. However, “koach” literally means strength or force. The “hazak hazak venitchazeik” was carried over, but we only use it today when we finish one of the books of Torah.
Another explanation given for the expression is that the word hazak meaning strength actually comes from three words: harisha which means plowing, zreah which means planting and ktzirah which means harvesting. These are the three steps needed to get produce to make food. Just like we need to prepare the ground for the seeds, for learning Torah we need to prepare our minds. Planting allows the food to grow just as little kernels of knowledge let our minds expand. The harvesting allows us to actually use what we have learned in our lives. Thus we wish upon our readers, leaders, ourselves and our congregations further strength in our learning and applying Torah knowledge.
The third reason that I would like to look at is that as we finish each book of the Torah we are left with something unfinished. Because of this we are praying to have the strength for ourselves, those around us and our children and grandchildren, to carry on.
When Genesis ends all of b’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel, are in Egypt, but are still held in high esteem. Although this is the end of the book, we know that this is not the end of the story. In fact, it is the beginning of the story of our slavery which leads to us becoming a nation.
At the end of the book of Exodus, the Tabernacle is erected by Moses. Again, this is a beginning of sorts as the Tabernacle was to be for us a holy place. We the children of Israel, the nation of Jews had to use the Tabernacle to fulfil its purpose.
At the end of the book of Leviticus and Numbers we are given the laws of tithing and inheritance. Those laws are meant for us to use in the land of Israel. Again, unless we use them they are dormant.
At the end of Deuteronomy Moses dies. Our great leader did not get to enter Israel and use the laws that were meant exclusively for the holy land which God gave us, but we can. We can be guided by all the laws and advice which the Torah gives. We can carry it on from generation to generation. It is up to us to keep the links of Judaism strong.
And perhaps we also need our strength to read the Torah again. After all, who wants to go over the same things again and again, especially when we can see that we, the Jewish people, and even our leaders made so many mistakes. But we must, as each time we learn more from the good and the bad of our ancestors. We are supposed to analyze their actions and thoughts and use them to make our lives and the lives of those around us better.
At the end of each of the books of Torah we are presented with an ending that is only an ending if we don’t take it any further. While it is our history, it is meant to be a part of our lives. Each ending is a beginning. Each of these books presents us with laws and challenges which affect us. Yes, we too went down to Egypt and became slaves. That is why each Passover we conduct the seder as if we too were slaves. And yes the laws relating to the land of Israel affect us because we are meant to live in Israel. And Moses’ life affects us because we choose to learn from it. He was our great leader, even if he was human and made some mistakes.
Just as we are to continue the history of our nation, so too we want the next generation to also carry on. The Torah is divided into books. I don’t know why, but I do know that our lives are also divided into segments. One door closes and another opens. We finish something but that doesn’t mean we are finished. Sometimes we need strength to continue on or to accomplish more and to help teach our children and grandchildren to fulfil their dreams and reach their potential.
So, “May the Force be with you” “hazak hazak venitchazeik.”
Marcia Goldlist is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. She was the author of one of the blog postings selected for theSecond Quarter 5779 Jewish Values Online Best Blogs. .
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