Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened’

Perhaps it’s not a formula at all, but rather words of support we give each other

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
WITH THE Torah portion Vayechi, we conclude the first book of the Torah, Genesis, which begins with the majestic voice of God at creation and ends with the sound of a coffin lid closing on Joseph’s mummified remains.
The patriarchs, those great men and women who began our historic journey by forging a personal relationship with God and the land of Israel, are gone. In the next portion, they will be but names recalled by generations of slaves who dream of redemption under the lash of the Egyptians.
As I think about this turn of history, I am reminded of my late father, a Holocaust survivor who lost his parents and siblings in the war. My father belonged to the last generation of students to learn in the yeshiva of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, better known as the Chofetz Chaim, named for his book on slander.
My father’s little South Philly (Philadelphia) shul was populated by Holocaust survivors like himself, and the shelves in the small sanctuary were lined with old religious books that Holocaust survivors brought to America after the war. He loved those books, as did I, but not, I suspect for the same reasons.
For me, the books were curios, hiding places, perhaps, for hidden treasure maps and other stuff of archeological fantasies. The pages were yellowed and brittle, worn by time and use. Their look and musty smell reminded me of some of the old people who prayed there. But, to my father, they were a different kind of treasure. He pored over these volumes during the services, occasionally bringing one home during the week to lovingly read on his easy chair while my sisters and I watched TV in the living room.
I suspect that to my father who lost his family, teachers, friends – even his village of Trochenbrod, Poland – these books were his way of reconnecting with his past, reuniting with old friends, sharing intimate memories and remembering a world long gone. These old books were all he had of his earlier life, and, even as he made a new life in America with us, he was very reluctant to close the book on his past.
It’s customary in Ashkenazi synagogues that when the Torah reader recites the last verse of the closing Torah portion the congregants stand and when he finishes the verse, they all recite the formula: “Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened.”
Many trace the custom back to the verse in Deuteronomy in which Moshe tells his successor, Joshua: “Be strong and of good courage,” as he completes his writing of the Torah, and invests him with the mantle of leadership. Others refer to the book of Joshua where God tells Joshua: “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth... Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of good courage.”
But since neither of these examples has the exact wording we use, I’d like to offer the following.
Like my father, I love to read.
But I hate coming to the end of a book. That is, reading for me means entering into a relationship with a book, sometimes becoming intimate with its author through the images its words conjure up. It’s a bond of friendship in which I invest a lot of effort and time. Finishing a book, however, means severing that bond. The book goes back to the shelf. The joys of discovery, the majestic genesis of ideas, are but a memory entombed on a library shelf.
Perhaps that is the real meaning behind our saying “be strong, be strong and we will be strengthened,” after we close a book of the Torah. Perhaps it’s not a formula at all, but rather words of support we give each other.
“Be strong,” we say to one another. Find strength to close the book you just finished. Yes, it’s hard to say goodbye to an old friend, but it doesn’t have to be permanent. “Be strong,” we say again, but this time we mean be strong to open the next chapter. And, finally, “we will be strengthened.” We will strengthen each other by remembering our shared past and we promise to remember it the same way as we face the future – together.
So, we close the book with the belief that we will see it again, because we never really say goodbye to what we’ve read ‒ we’re just closing the cover for a while. And while it may be a whole year until we see each other again, we will see each other again.
We may be changed a bit, but like old friends we will catch up with each other. And who knows, maybe we’ll both learn something new from each other the next time.
Rabbi Sidney Slivko is a lecturer and writer, who was ordained at RIETS, Yeshiva University, New York. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and their two children.