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Having just completed the reading of the book of Bereshit this past Shabat, I was again privileged to participate in the traditional Jewish custom of reciting publicly the blessing "chazak, chazak v'nitzacheik." This blessing is proclaimed at the conclusion of the reading of one of the five books of Moshe. This custom is an ancient one, dating back to Talmudic times in Babylonia and the Land of Israel. The blessing literally means, "be strong, be strong and let us strengthen ourselves." The usual interpretation given to the recitation of this phrase, when concluding the reading of one of the books of the Torah, is that we should strengthen ourselves for further Torah readings and greater accomplishments in Torah knowledge and Jewish life. But why the use of the verb that symbolizes strength - "be strong?" Would it not be more sensible to say "lmad, lmad, v'nilmad" - "study, study, and we will be learned?" What does strength have to do with the completion of a book of the Torah?

It is obvious that the above custom and its blessing has little to do with physical strength, though health and bodily strength are certainly necessary for normal life and any spiritual or intellectual achievements. The custom is therefore based upon the unique Jewish definition of strength - of an inner characteristic of strength of purpose, will and morality. The rabbis in Avot taught us: "Who is a strong person? One who has the strength to overcome one's base desires." Thus, self-control, moral probity, modesty of behavior and personality are the components of true Jewish strength. It is therefore most fitting that the blessing of strength is recited publicly at the conclusion of the reading of one of the books of the Torah. For the entire lesson to be learned from that holy book that we have just concluded reading and learning from is this message of Jewish inner spiritual strength, probity of behavior and self-discipline. We are a strong people, perhaps ultimately the strongest of all peoples, because of our inner strength. Bilaam, no friend of ours, nevertheless compared us to a lion. Rome thought of the Jews as being their strongest enemy and most unconquerable foe. Even the anti-Semites, who unfortunately currently abound, emphasize our attribute of strength. This leads then to their belief in the real plausibility of their cockeyed conspiracy theories about how the Jews run the world. But they misread our strength. Our strength lies in our faith and our loyalty to God and His Torah and to the traditions of Israel that have nurtured us for thousands of years.

There is a special ceremony that custom dictates to take place at the conclusion of a tractate of the Mishna or Talmud. Some sort of festive meal usually accompanies that ceremony, called a "siyum," which literally means "the ending." The "siyum" itself involves the recitation of a blessing thanking God for the privilege of studying His Torah and for being able to celebrate the completion of one of the tractates of Mishna or Talmud. The ceremony also includes a commitment to study further and to return and review once again the tractate just completed. In fact, most times the "siyum" ceremony includes the actual beginning of study of another tractate of Mishna and Talmud. This is to indicate the infinity of Torah study and that there really is never any end point to this pursuit. This is also in line with the custom practiced on Simchat Torah. Immediately after the Chatan Torah has completed the reading of the cycle of the entire five books of Moshe, the Chatan Bereshit begins the cycle anew by the reading of the first chapter of the Torah. At a 'siyum," traditionally a "hadran" lecture is delivered by a scholar. The "hadran" concentrates on a certain subject covered in the tractate that has just been completed and also connects to the subject matter of the new tractate that will now be studied. There are a many great books of Jewish scholarship based solely on the lectures of "hadran." The "siyum" always concludes with a prayer for strength to be able to continue studying Torah and with a special text of "kadish" regarding the redemption of Israel, Zion and Jerusalem. The prophet Zecharia taught us: "not by physical strength nor by physical power alone shall you prevail, but rather by the strength of My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts." And so it is.

Berel Wein

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