Jewish Strength – Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech
It’s not in the heavens nor beyond the seas: No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it (Deut. 30:14).
Also, where do Jews get their strength? It comes from within through our strong morality, Torah study and self-reflection in prayer, says Rabbi Heather Miller in her commentary on Nitzavim-Vayeilech.
My grandfather would always entertain my brother and me. He would pretend to try to open a jar and not be able to do so. So, he would say, “Oh, I see what the problem is! I forgot to inflate my muscles!” So, he would then roll up his sleeves, pull out his arm and
pretend to “blow air” into his thumb while flexing his muscle.
Then he would quickly close his thumb against his fist and say—there it is, all blown up. Ready to open the jar!” He would twist the cap and open it! I thought he got his strength from inflating his muscles. But, as I think about him now, actually, I realize that my grandfather was a very strong man for many more important reasons than from his mere physical strength. He had the most amazing strength of character—honest in business, loyal to his family, and of good countenance.
And, for us Jews, isn’t that, afterall, what really makes us strong? In this week’s double Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, Moses, the aged leader, calls upon Joshua, his successor, and warns him that the rest of the Israelites were inclined to forsake God and break God’s covenant with them. So, Moses said to Joshua in the sight of all Israel: “CHAZAK V’AMATZ” “Be strong and resolute.” (Deut. 31:7)
Again, I would like to point out that the strength that we, Jews, revere most is not a physical strength. As it would have made no sense for Moses to suggest that Joshua physically take on the entire Israelite community and “strong arm” them into submission. Rather, the strength that Moses valued and indeed the strength that the Jewish people value, is that of strength of character. Moses was impressing upon Joshua the importance of strongly adhering to the ethical principles of the Jewish tradition as best he could.
In rabbinic texts, too, the rabbis insist that Jewish strength comes from the ability to withstand the temptation to do evil. The Mishna’s Pirkei Avot, codified in the year 200 C.E., says: “WHO IS MIGHTY (gibur)?: He who conquers his passions.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1) For the Jewish people, our strength must be focused inward, and used to strengthen our moral behavior!
The Hasidic master known as the Baal Shem Tov would say that, “We should strive to pray and sing hymns in a low voice, but with all the strength in us.”1 Jewish strength should be applied not to physical activities but to spiritual pursuits. Prayer was seen as a strengthening exercise. Similarly, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that we should not “spend our strength for nothingness and vanity”2—rather, as we should use our strength for the service of God.3
What does this mean? These days, we should not busy ourselves with the vain pursuits of our next material acquisition—the newest sports car, a bigger house, a better wardrobe. No, we should rather focus our time, energy and attention—indeed all of our strength—on character traits of living an honest, life—focusing our strength on resisting the temptations in this world— for example: mustering up the strength to deal fairly in business, to be patient while driving in traffic, to resist the offer to do drugs. The rabbis, if they were around today, would say that those who can be fair, patient and resistant in these ways are truly strong.
The Gerer Rabbi interpreted Psalm 147:10 and 11: “The Lord does not desire to be served by the animal strength in a man, nor by the bodily might within him. He does not wish a man ever to exert himself or to serve Him with the limbs. He does [however] take pleasure in those who revere Him and who hope for his kindness.”4
From such reverence for God and the life that we were given, comes a true strength: that of character. We know the strength it takes to have integrity or character anytime we make a tough decision for the right reason, or when we make difficult sacrifices for a worthy goal, or when we challenge ourselves to serve those in need when it would be much easier to stay home. It takes constant strength to live a righteous life. And, isn’t it nice to know that the Jewish tradition recognizes that—yet, nevertheless insists that we adhere to that standard.
One last word on strength—and how to maintain it– When the Gerer Rabbi was undergoing his last illness, the physician who attended him advised him to gain a little strength by more sleep. The Rabbi replied: “Doesn’t the wise physician know that it is Torah and Prayer, not sleep, which grants strength to a Jew?5 As Jews, we don’t get strength from ephemeral things like blowing air into our muscles or like Popeye, through a can of spinach. Our real strength comes from within —strong morality and the source of our strength comes through the studying of Torah and from the constant self-reflection that we do during prayer. May we each reflect upon our character and how we might continue to bolster and strengthen it.
1 A Hasidic Anthology (K.S.T., p. 12b)
2 Isaiah 49:4.
3 The Hasidic Anthology, (O.Y., 39)
4 The Hasidic Anthology, (S.S.K., ii, 44)
5 The Hasidic Anthology (M.E.H., ii, 85)