As we prepare to close out the old year and ring in the new, this week also will conclude our reading of the Book of Genesis. It is a poignant coincidence that happens rather frequently in our year. Further poignancy is to be found in the conclusion to the Genesis narratives themselves, which have been marked by great struggle and conflict. The recurring patterns of generational conflict and fraternal and sororal jealousy and enmity have continued to plague the patriarchs and matriarchs of our people. Nevertheless, now the sons of Israel have effected a rapprochement with their brother Joseph in Egypt, and their father Jacob has joined them from Canaan as well. As we close the Genesis narratives this week, the family is finally together, living in peace and prosperity. The story ends happily. . . at least until next week, when “a new king (will rise up) over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. . . .”
When the ball drops on Wednesday night, most likely we all will shout “Happy New Year,” and drink a toast to a year of good health, prosperity, and peace. On this coming Shabbat morning, we will have a quieter, yet equally as joyous a moment. When we conclude the Book of Genesis we will rise, together with Jews the world over, and proclaim the words with which conclude every book of the Torah: חזק חזק ונתחזק – Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek. Some would translate this as: Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened! Others might render it: Be strong, be strong, and let us summon up our strength! We hear a variation of the phrase repeatedly at the end of Deuteronomy as Moses hands over the mantle of leadership to Joshua: Hazak Ve’ematz, Be strong and of good courage (Deuteronomy 32.7). Joshua in turn repeats it to the Israelites once he has assumed leadership (Joshua 1). The Biblical scholar Jeffrey Tigay cites and additional source, an abbreviated form, in the exhortation of King David’s general Joab to the Israelites as they march into battle: Hazak Venithazek, 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). Dr. Tigay points out, however, that the traditional recitation of Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek upon completion of a book of the Torah, probably reflects the Rabbinic transformation of this battle cry into the aspiration for spiritual strength and loyalty to the Torah.
We will have some hard work to do in the coming year, to confront the division and enmity that exists in our country, and to try to bind up our wounds and heal our society. It is in this spirit that I offer my own toast to the New Year, with the translation that I personally prefer upon the completion of a book of the Torah. I offer it both as an exhortation and as a prayer: חזק חזק ונתחזק- Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek – Be strong, be very strong, and we shall strengthen each other.