Illustration: The logo of the “Atlas” experiment, conducted at the CERN physics laboratory in Switzerland, in which the “Higgs boson” was discovered. The Atlas of mythology was the giant who held up the world on his shoulders—the icon of strength.
Today, I begin my 28th year of service to Temple Israel. In addition to representing sounds, Hebrew letters have a secondary use to signify numbers. The letters that spell “28” are kaf and chet. (pronounced “khet”, like the first letter of “challah” or “Chanukkah”) Together, they make up the word “koach”, meaning “strength”. So I have been thinking about the different nuances of the word strength.
The obvious meaning is all well and good, but I am more interested in subtler forms of strength. The guy who impresses his girl friend at the carnival by taking the hammer and hitting the bell so hard that the riser goes to the top of the column is a staple of old-fashioned American courtship. But what of that couple’s subsequent marriage-- do they just live happily ever after? If they add maturity to their youthful prowess, the two people develop different kinds of strength as the years go on. What about the strength to persevere in a so-so job, because one must provide for one’s family? What about the strength to care for a sick husband?
Have you ever tried to hold your arms up for an extended period? Not so easy… In Exodus 17, the Bible relates a formative memory from the early history of our people: Moses, standing up to inspire the Israelites during their battle against the Amalekites, raised his arms, and the Israelites would do well. But if he lowered his arms, the Israelites would falter. So Aaron and Hur supported Moses’ arms, one of either side, and held him in that posture throughout the day. Thus did the Israelites weaken their powerful and wicked enemy. Like the Man of La Mancha (“to fight when your arms are too weary”), Moses’ arms were too weary; but Moses found a different solution. What kind of strength is that? For surely it is strength, and not weakness, to adapt and to compensate successfully for one’s inevitable limitations.
In this week’s Torah portion, (at least) three kinds of strength are on display, not immediately obvious, but quite telling in the long run: the strength to compromise, the strength to break from unproductive habits, and the strength to carry on.
Our portion (Numbers 32) tells a story that exemplifies all three of these nuances of strength. (The story has always intrigued me. I preached about it on my first Shabbat eve, July 31, 1992—but you are not expected to remember that. Heck, I’m pleasantly surprised that I remember it!) Two and a half tribes approach Moses and say that they would prefer to take their inheritance on the Golan Heights and the east bank of the Jordan, rather than the historic land of Israel. They are ranchers, and the territory just captured when the Israelites fought off an attack from Sichon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan, is ideal for their livelihood. Remembering the tragic episode of the 12 spies, a generation earlier, Moses accuses them of betraying the Israelite cause and threatening to thwart the accomplishment of the nation’s destiny, to settle in the Promised Land. But the tribes come up with a serious counter-offer. They will serve as vanguards, fighting on behalf of their fellow Israelites, and continue until all their kinfolk are settled. Moses, somewhat ungraciously, accepts their counter-offer.
I have long felt that the purpose of this story is not only to explain the presence of Israelite tribes on the east bank of the Jordan, in the early, tribal days of our history. The value added by explaining our settlement in just this fashion is that we get a glimpse of the success of the Wilderness sojourn, that the new generation of Israelites had transcended the limitations of their parents. Unlike the Exodus generation, these Israelites had been born in freedom. They didn’t simply whine and crumple when faced with adversity. When challenged by Moses, they responded with an offer that met his objections while preserving their own goals. (Would that Americans today could remember the strength of compromise!)
Think about the kinds of strength that, in your own life, you are called upon to summon. There will be challenges to your integrity—be strong. There will be challenges to your ideals, the noble teachings of our tradition—be strong. Be strong to ward off arrogance in victory. Be strong to ward off cynicism in defeat. Be strong to play your hand in life as well as you can, even when the cards in your hand are mostly low. Be strong to overcome foolish pride, when you need help, and to accept the help that is offered (Moses allowed his hands to be supported!).
Again, the Hebrew for strength is “koach”. In Yiddish, the expression for congratulating someone on a successful accomplishment is “yasher koach”, literally, “may be strength be straight” (more or less, this means, “right on”!)
Live the kind of life about which the Heavenly Judge will say, “yasher koach”!
Rabbi Michael Panitz