As we complete each book of the Torah, it is customary to repeat the words "Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik." These words, understood as "Congratulations!" actually have a more profound message. They can be translated as either "Be strong, be strong, and we will be encouraged" or "Be strong, be strong, and we will make an effort." The first part of the phrase uses the singular form; the individual should be strengthened. The second part uses the plural form, indicating two key outcomes of individual strength: not only the individual, but also the collective of which she or he is a part can be encouraged by the message and add its efforts to those of the individual.
This seems like a most appropriate framework for this week's double portion,Vayak'heil/P'kudei, the concluding portions of the Book of Exodus. After Moses returns from the mountaintop for the second time, he gathers all of the people and commands them to bring their offerings to construct the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. In the text, while Moses is depicted as directing the project, the actual work of creating and constructing the Tabernacle is described as a collective activity. As the people prepare for the remainder of their journey, the completion of the Tabernacle—the place of God's indwelling and the most sacred place they have ever known-depends on their efforts as a group. Each individual fortifies him- or herself to contribute to its construction (and in this portion the unique gifts of the Israelite women are actually enumerated!), and the entire group finds encouragement as each individual participates to accomplish the holy task.
Think of it. The activities we deem holy—prayer, study, acts of loving-kindness—are traditionally done with or for others. We come together as a community to pray. And when we pray, while there is time for personal prayer, all of our prayers are collective statements. They bind us not only to God, but also to our people-past, present, and future. Most often, we pray using the word anachnu, "we," rather than with the word, ani, "I"; every I helps form we, and my own personal prayers are tied to those of the community.
When we study, we traditionally study with a partner in chevruta, in "fellowship." In the Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 7a, we are told: As fire does not burn when isolated, so will the word of Torah not be preserved when studied by oneself. The Torah itself and its enduring impact are threatened if each of us studies alone. When we study with others, we learn dimensions of Torah that would otherwise elude us. The meaning that Torah has for each of us is enhanced and enriched when we realize it is not meant for our own individual sake, but for ourselves together with the others we engage with.
Finally, g'milut chasidim, "acts of loving-kindness," are predicated on there being others in the world for whom we care, with whom we identify, and toward whom we extend our presence, our love, our kindness. We cannot fulfill the mitzvot of visiting the sick, caring for the widow and the orphan, burying the dead, and so on if we do not see ourselves as part of a larger whole.
The Chasidic commentary known as the Or Chayim relates a story of a student who complained that after studying for thirty years—lishmah, "studying for its own sake"—he had not found any divine inspiration. His rebbe explained to him that God could not see him if he secluded himself and studied and prayed only for himself and by himself. He went on to explain that the phrase kol adat B'nei Yisrael, which appears multiple times in this week's portions (Exodus 35:1, 35:4, 35:20), reminds us that when we work with others we can come to appreciate our own wholeness, our own sh'leimut . When we engage with others, we are given an opportunity to appreciate our own strengths and gifts, because we can see how others' strengths, experiences, and contributions complement our own.
Like Moses, we have a tendency to look at our accomplishments and attribute their completion to our individual selves. Our joy will be enhanced when, as we "take an accounting" ( p'kudei ), we realize how many others were involved in the process and appreciate the unique contributions that they made, large and small. Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik !
Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener, D.Min., is clinical director of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling and adjunct professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. She is also the rabbi of the Pound Ridge Jewish Community, a Reform chavurah, in Pound Ridge, New York.