As we finish one book of the Torah and move on to the next, Jewish custom has us recite a short phrase that almost fills the physical space left in the scroll between books. (According to tradition, a Torah scribe leaves several blank lines of parchment at the end of each of the five books.) We say the Hebrew words Chazak,chazak venitchazeik (Strength, strength and we shall be strengthened)! This custom has somewhat undefined origins, but we believe it may date back at least to the 12th or 13th century. Scholarship shows that in some communities, the phrase chazak (strength) may have been uttered every time someone came up to the Torah to read and, over time, this became the practice only when an entire book was finished. The longer phrase chazak venitchazeik seems to have its origins in another Biblical passage where King David found it necessary to divide the Israelites so they could fight against two separate armies. No wonder they needed strength!
Though we are not sure exactly how this practice developed, what we can be sure of is that the continued reading and study of Torah is our people's method of staying strong, re-learning and reinforcing our values year after year and week after week. When we feel we might be divided from others in our community, we can look to the Torah for insight and guidance. When we wonder how we will have the courage to stand up for our beliefs, we can look to the lives of our ancestors who were tested by the diversity of life's challenges. When we want to be reminded that we are not alone in the world, we need only come to synagogue where we continue to learn from the words of Torah and we reaffirm that its teachings give us strength.
In celebration of the end of the book of Genesis, I invite you to listen to two musical renditions of the text chazak, chazak venitchazeik.. The first is a simple chant by Cantor Jeff Klepper