17 December 2010
10 Tevet 5771
This Shabbat we will conclude Sefer Breishit (the Book of Genesis) and the stories of our founding family. At the end of the Torah reading, as with the completion of each book of the Torah, it is customary for the community to rise and recite “chazak, chazak v’nitchazek,” loosely translated as, “we are strong, we are strong and let us be strengthened.” This phrase is a simultaneous celebration-affirmation of what we have accomplished (the completion of the book) and a blessing that we will continue to gain strength in the future, presumably, by reading and learning more Torah. I am especially intrigued by the concept of “nitchazek – let us be strengthened.” What does it mean to be strengthened by Torah?
The fact that we say this as a community at the conclusion of the public Torah reading certainly indicates that one aspect of the strengthening applies to our community. Each week in our synagogue Torah reading we reenact the original revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai when the Israelites surrounded the mountain in a circle. This public reading affirms that when Torah learning and Torah values are at the center of our community, we are strengthened by them—nitchazek.
Coincidentally, this week I had the joy of attending my son’s second grade class’s “milestone event”, where each child receives his or her own chumash (book of the Torah)—in this case, sefer Breishit. To prepare for this important day, the children studied the story of Lech-lecha, the beginning of Abraham and Sarah’s journey and the origins of our people. They also prepared posters that chronicled their life journeys from birth to this milestone event, made sculptures of a memorable moment on that journey, and during the ceremony, chanted lines from an actual Torah scroll and acted out the story. After the performance, our children became our teachers as they read and translated with us from their new chumashim. It was a most humbling and emotional experience to watch my son reach this special moment in his life and to see the concept of “chazak, chazak v’nitchazek” in action. May he continue to be strengthened by a deep and direct relationship with Torah as a source of connection to his past and his people and a source of inspiration, values, and essential questions for his life.
At Gann this week we saw a different glimpse of what “nitchazek” might mean. We hosted a thoughtful and entertaining guest speaker, Michael Zarren, assistant general manager of the Boston Celtics, who plays many roles for the organization, including chief statistics strategist. Mike is making a significant impact on both the Celtics and the NBA by bringing data and statistics to basketball strategy and analysis much like they are used already in baseball or football. He regaled us with Celtics stats and stories while bringing math to life by illustrating how statistics help the Celtics look at player performance in new ways, some of which run counter to what most of us read in the newspaper or see on ESPN.
For me the highlight of Mike’s talk was when he responded to a question about his Jewish journey and the role Judaism plays in his life. While he self-proclaimed not to be living an observant Jewish life, he attributed his success at Harvard Law School and with statistics in part to his grounding in the Jewish intellectual tradition. “Judaism, as a tradition, demands that we constantly interpret things such as stories and rules,” Mike said, “and when you have those skills you can interpret a lot of things . . . such as data and statistics. I have a bunch of skills as a result of my Judaism. . . In addition,” he added, “Jews aren’t afraid to challenge each other and challenge authority. So much of my job is about challenging conventional wisdom.” He even quoted a famous rabbinic story during his talk.
What a powerful message for our students—a cool, successful, passionate Boston Celtics fan who is rising to the top his professional game, loves what he does, and identifies his strength and success with the skills and values he has learned from Torah and the Jewish tradition!
Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.
Rabbi Marc Baker