The Hardest Words that Are Not in the Torah
As we approach the end of Sefer Bereishis, I cannot help but think back to the last time we finished a book of the Torah. For us in Chutz La’Aretz, it was the day after the world changed. As is the custom of Ashkenazim, we completed Sefer Devarim and cried out “Chazak, Chazak V’Nischazek”.
So many of our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael did not hear those words in Simchas Torah; they were hiding in bomb shelters and stair wells. So many will never hear those words again.
The origins of calling out these three words is somewhat murky. They are not written in the Torah. The custom is discussed by the Rishonim, trying to find a reason for our practice in its various forms. Sefardim call out “Chazak U’Baruch”, and some communities call out “Chazak, Chazak, Chazak.”
It appears, however, that according to all opinions, it is deeply rooted in the practice of Jews across the world and centuries that we conclude a Sefer with a cry of “Strength”.
The Pri Chadash (סי' קל”ט ס”ק י”א) notes this this is because the Talmud (ברכות לב א) tells us that four things always need strengthening: Torah, Good deeds, Tefillah and a Career.
Rav Kook explains that despite the obvious values to these endeavors, without constant work, we tend to let things slip. To this end, as soon as we complete a book of the Torah, we immediately declare that we should be strengthened to continue; we are not resting on our laurels.
But the conclusion of Sefer Bereishis appears to carry an additional message. By all standards, this book ends tragically:
וַיָּמׇת יוֹסֵף ... וַיִּישֶׂם בָּאָרוֹן בְּמִצְרָיִם Joseph died... and was placed in a coffin in Egypt.
The cry for strength at this juncture is not simply to encourage future Torah study; it’s a response to the calamity of the parsha. This Great Book of Creation ends with the death of its protagonists, and the exile of their descendants. It’s a depressing narrative to say the least.
Of course, we know that this darkness will eventually give way to the magnificence of Yetzias Mitzraim, the Splitting of the Red Sea and the Giving of the Torah. But not before generations of murder and slavery. Yosef’s death carries with it the full weight of the journey ahead. It is no wonder that we pause at this juncture to rally together and encourage each other to strengthen ourselves.
But this is not the whole story. The truth is that when Yosef dies, the journey has barely begun. At this point, the family of Yaakov was still experiencing some of the greatest prosperity that any Jewish community would ever enjoy. The slavery was still years away, the pain would only begin decades into the future.
On the one hand, Sefer Bereishis ends in exile and devastation, but on the other, it concludes with wondrous success: The reunification of Yaakov’s sons with all the religious and material freedoms they would ever want or need.
Perhaps it is davka this situation that needs the greatest Chizuk; this reality so eerily predictive of the lives which we live today. Drawing connections between Klal Yisrael in Mitzraim and our current circumstance is not my own interpretation; it was first said by the Ramban in our Parsha:
כי רדת יעקב למצרים הוא גלותינו היום ביד החיה הרביעית (דניאל ז ז) רומי הרשעה
Jacob’s descent into Egypt alludes to our present exile at the hand of the “fourth beast,” which represents Rome.
The Ramban continues to explain that our inability to fully return to Eretz Yisrael is not due to a lack of capacity on our part, but rather the intricate political alliances in which we are entangled. We are held back from fulfilling our national mission of reconquering and resettling Eretz Yisrael by the nations of the world; despite the fact that we are now capable.
It is in this complex web that Yaakov Avinu chooses to reveal to his children the vision of the end of time, as Rashi tells us:
בקש לגלות את הקץ ונסתלקה ממנו שכינה
He wished to reveal to them the end of Israel’s exile but the Shechinah departed from him.
Living in such times now, we can certainly appreciate the need for clarity about the future. If only there was a way to know and understand how Hashem is holding our hands and guiding us through this end of the exile. But instead, the Parsha is “closed”. There is no break. We rush from line to line, pasuk to pasuk, word to word, and there is no pause or explantion.
We move from news report to news report, hostage to hostage, story to story, soldier to soldier. There is no pause. No Break. No clarity. No clue when this is going to end. We too wish for Yaakov, for anyone, to reveal the end, but now, just as then, it’s closed.
But the Sfas Emes (ויחי תרל”א) shared the secret of our parsha and our life:
מ”מ כ' בזוה”ק שגילה מה שרצה לגלות רק בדרך הסתר Nevertheless, the Zohar teaches us that Yaakov was able to reveal something of the End in a hidden way.
והפי' ע”י אמונה יכולין למצוא האמת להתברר שהוא רק הסתר כנ”ל. ולכך ויחי יעקב סתום. שזה מקור החיות להיות נמצא גם בא”מ. The meaning of this, is that by our knowing that Yaakov knew, we know that the end is possible. Yaakov lived in Mitzraim; which means that it’s possible to find live and meaning and purpose and clarity even in the darkness of exile.
We know and believe with perfect faith that there is a happy end to the story. We know it because Yaakov knew it; even if he couldn’t share it. We know it because he lived it.
So this shabbos, we will finish Sefer Bereishis; living the same lives as out ancestors. Shrouded in politics, exile and anxiety about the future, but screaming “Chazak, Chazak V’Nischazek”. Despite it all, we can still continue to find strength. Whether we see it or not, the end of the darkness is coming soon.