World of the Sages: Timbres of encouragement

Our sages tell us that four quests require constant encouragement: the study of Torah, the practice of good deeds, the prayer encounter and the pursuit of a livelihood (B. Berachot 32b).

Our sages tell us that four quests require constant encouragement: the study of Torah, the practice of good deeds, the prayer encounter and the pursuit of a livelihood (B. Berachot 32b). To buttress this contention, they cite scriptural support for the need to strengthen each of these undertakings. For Torah study and doing good deeds, the Talmud cites a verse from the opening prophecy that God communicates to Joshua after the death of Moses: "Only be strong [hazak] and be very courageous [ematz] to observe [lishmor] to act [la'asot] according to all the Torah which Moses My servant has commanded you; do not depart from it to the right or to the left, so that you will prosper wherever you may go" (Joshua 1:7). Our sages explain that the heartening hazak (be strong) refers to learning Torah, while the encouraging ematz (be courageous) indicates the practice of good deeds. Indeed the Almighty instructs Joshua with two verbs to guard the Torah - lishmor (to observe) and la'asot (to act) - one referring to the study of the Torah and the other referring to the performance of worthy actions in accordance with the Torah's precepts. Elsewhere in the Talmud, the Hebrew root sh-m-r (guard, observe) is understood as referring to Torah study and the root a-s-a (do) understandably indicates deed (B. Kiddushin 37a). The Talmud continues with a biblical source for the need to strengthen prayer: "Hope to God, be strong and He will give your heart courage (veya'ametz), and hope to God" (Psalms 27:14). When looking to the Almighty in prayer, we need to be strong and of brave heart. Here too the source uses two terms of encouragement, yet our sages only derive one field that needs strengthening from this verse - prayer. The fourth pursuit that calls for encouragement is the challenge of earning a livelihood. "Our sages offer the following verse as a source: Be strong and let us strengthen ourselves (venithazak) on behalf of our people and behalf of the cities of our Lord, and God will do that which seems good in His eyes" (II Samuel 10:12). The verse is taken from General Yoav's tactical discussion with his brother and fellow general, Avishai, during the battle against Ammon and Aram. Yoav was offering strengthening words before the two generals parted, each taking part of the army. In context the encouragement is for the business of soldiering, but our sages apply it to all worldly occupations (Rashi, 11th century, France). Looking back at this talmudic passage, we see that two Hebrew terms are used to define the need for reinforcing various areas: hazak and ematz. Why are two different terms employed for the one idea? A possible answer may be derived from the explanation that one biblical commentator offers for God's first words of encouragement to Joshua. Rabbi Meir Leibish ben Yehiel Michel Weiser (1809-1879), better known by the acronym of his name - Malbim - was born in Volhynia, then part of the Russian empire. He served as rabbi in a number of European cities, eventually taking the post of chief rabbi of Bucharest, Romania. Malbim was a staunch defender of Orthodoxy, and his disagreements with those advocating Reform led to his imprisonment. Through the intervention of Sir Moses Montefiore he was released on condition he left the country. Malbim traveled to various cities where he served in the rabbinate, yet at each post he clashed with those seeking changes to normative practice. A feature of his commentary is the attempt to explain nuances between synonyms. In reference to Gods words to Joshua - hazak v'ematz - Malbim suggests that the term hazak refers to an initial effort, the encouragement to embark upon a new quest, the strength for that first push that goes against the inertia of life. The term ematz, on the other hand, encourages a continued effort to perform once the glamor of the first encounter has dulled, the courage to struggle against the tedium of repetition in the pursuit of lofty goals. Using the definitions of Malbim as a springboard, perhaps we can better understand the talmudic passage. The inaugural Torah study session is the most challenging: Finding the time and the mental space to embark upon the intellectual and emotional journey of encountering our tradition requires focus. Once this initial step is taken, the continuation of the pursuit is less demanding for the excitement of this stimulating journey fuels its continuation. Thus for Torah study, the term hazak is employed to encourage us to begin the voyage. Similarly, a new job entails particular hurdles: becoming acquainted with new colleagues, the work environment, accepted procedures and other norms of the workplace. Once a worker adjusts to a new position, the memory of initial difficulties fades. Yet at the initial stages of acclimation, hazak words of encouragement are invaluable. In the biblical passage, both Yoav and Avishai were faced with a new reality, therefore Yoav offers the blessing of hazak and adds that he too needed to strengthen himself for the new situation - venithazak. The performance of good deeds is starkly different: The first-time act is the most exciting, later on even altruistic pursuits can become tedious. The struggle is the perseverance of what was once a novelty. Thus for the practice of worthy acts the term ematz is used to strengthen the continuation of a journey begun in earnest. Prayer - perhaps the pursuit that requires the most strengthening - is difficult to embark upon and difficult to continue. Sincere, focused prayer is a constant struggle from which there is no respite and many of us are familiar with the challenge of regular heartfelt prayer. Thus both hazak and ematz are offered for this testing venture: hazak to begin, ematz to continue. Many times in our lives we need strengthening from our peers. At times we find ourselves offering words of support, assisting others in their time of need. Encouragement is not of one timbre; sometimes an initial push of hazak is needed, while at other times an ematz of persistence is called for. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.