Your Superhuman Strength (Edited Transcript)
Welcome and thank you for listening.
This week’s parsha, Matot Masei, is a double parsha and marks a very important milestone in the Chumash because we complete the fourth of the Five Books. The book of Bamidbar is completed with the reading of this double portion and with the famous sentence, “Chazak chazak v’nitchazek – Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened”.
It’s very significant that this sentence is said upon the conclusion of each of the books of the Chumash. The way it works, as seen in shul on Shabbat morning, is that as the reader finishes the final verse of the portion, he reads out the sentence aloud and then the congregation repeat it after him, “Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened”. The custom is also that the entire congregation stands-up for the reading of the final verse. When the Torah is read some have a custom to stand throughout the Torah reading. The general custom is to be seated during the Torah reading and then to stand at certain selected passages. Of those selected passages, we always stand for the final verse of each one of the Five Books and at the end say, “Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened”.
This line is very significant because it sums up the essence of what we should be feeling and what our focus should be at the completion of one of the Five Books. It focuses on this concept of being strong. There is a very deep connection between strength and the Torah itself. There is a famous verse in the Book of Psalms (29:11) which says, “Hashem will give strength to His nation, Hashem will bless His nation with peace”. The Talmud asks, what does it mean that Hashem has given His people strength? And the answer is through the Torah. The Torah is the source of our strength. And that’s why we would say, “Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened”.
How does the Torah give us strength? It gives us strength and motivation because it provides us with a framework of meaning and values – that our lives should be guided by G-d’s Principles and whatever we do is elevated by that. And that gives us the strength of our convictions that we can do what is right. Real strength is required when we have to do what is right, even if it seems to clash with our personal self-interest. It often requires superhuman strength. The famous motivational thinker and writer, Dale Carnegie, says that when you are trying to motivate people and persuade them, the best way is to show them how it’s in fact their self-interests. And there is such a concept in Judaism – it says we should fulfil the commandments, even if it’s just for the side benefits that we can enjoy as a result of fulfilling the commandments. Because, says the Talmud, from doing something for the incorrect reason – not the purest motives – one can eventually and will eventually come to do it for a better and higher motivation. But that’s always second best.
Ultimately we are aiming to do things because G-d has told us to, and because it’s the right thing to do. And that’s where we need to focus our attention. Because we are so often called upon to act with superhuman strength and do things that seem to go against our own self-interest. One of the classic examples that the Talmud points out is the laws of the shmitah, the Sabbatical year where the farmer has to watch his land lie fallow. There is a very beautiful passage in the Talmud that says this requires superhuman, angelic strength – almost the strength of angels. For a farmer to sit down for an entire year and watch his fields lie fallow and let other people come-in and take produce – that requires superhuman strength and restraint. And in other areas, whether it is the giving of charity where we have to part with between 10% and 20% of our disposable income – that requires superhuman strength; not to speak lashon hara – gossip about another person – that requires superhuman strength. Many of the things that we are called upon to do require superhuman strength. In fact, we call it superhuman because even the Midrash says this is the power of the angels – but in fact we are able to do it. So we need to be careful. And even as we use this term superhuman, we need to be cautious and understand that we are human beings, but G-d gave us the commandments. So it’s not beyond our capability to do them. It’s within our grasp but it requires really reaching for greatness through stretching ourselves and going beyond our own personal self-interest.
For the sake of Heaven
And that becomes such a key to success in life. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (4:14) says that any community, assembly or organisation which is dedicated to heaven will endure forever. There are many different commentaries and explanations for this particular Mishna. The Tosafot Yomtov, one of our classic commentators on the Mishna, says that it is referring to success in communal endeavours. What is the greatest destroyer of success in communal endeavours? He says its arrogance, ego, self-centredness – all of the things where a person is pursuing their own self-interest can lead to the destruction of a positive initiative. The key to success, whether it’s in a communal endeavour or in any endeavour in life, is to do it for the sake of heaven.
And I think that the Mishna is stressing particularly the concept of community because that is when we are interacting with other people. When interacting with other people we have to be able to move beyond ourselves and be able to put the cause and the interests of the cause first. Only then will it be a successful endeavour as a community. And that requires strength. That’s why we always ask G-d, “Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened”. In order to be able to do that we need to have the strength to override all of these personal interests in favour of the interests of the cause.
When we say that any community dedicated to Heaven will endure forever, we can be talking about a very large community of thousands or millions of people, or a smaller community of a few hundred people in the context of a particular synagogue or a communal organisation. But the smallest community that exists is actually the family. When two people marry each other they are forming a community. When they have children, that community expands a little bit. It is a small community, but nevertheless a community. And the key to success within family and within marriage is the capacity to put aside ego and personal self-interest for the good of the marriage, for the good of the family, for the good of one’s children, and for the good of one’s spouse. That is when it becomes a community which lasts and can exist forever. And in doing so we actually serve our own personal interest. That’s the irony, that Hashem has created the world in such a way that when we have the greatness to rise above ourselves, that is when our own self-interests are fulfilled to the highest level because then one can have the peace, the tranquillity, and the inspiration that comes from successful endeavours whether it is on the level of marriage or family or children or community and even in the pursuit of money in business. People will always tell you that one of the things that can upset the success of any business is when people don’t put the interests of the business first but put their own personal interests first. And so, too, whether it’s on the level of society or government, everything we should do has to be for the sake of heaven.
The greatness of Moshe
And that is why Moshe Rebbeinu, Moses our teacher, was the greatest leader ever. There was no-one who arose like Moshe. This is one of the thirteen principles of faith when we talk about the prophecy of Moshe and the greatness of Moshe. And what was one of the dimensions of his greatness? There were many aspects to it, of course, but his tremendous humility was clearly something that made him successful and a great human being at all levels.
But another very important dimension was his remarkable ability to put the cause before his own personal interest. You see that in the portion that we read this week. G-d commands him to have a final battle against Midian. And it says after that battle is completed, “You will be gathered unto your people”. So Moshe knew that this was the final battle that had to take place, and one of the last things that he had to achieve as a leader. And in the Midrash, Rav Yehudah, the great Talmudic sage, says if Moshe had wanted to live for many years he could have because G-d said to him, to go do battle against Midian and then you shall be gathered unto your people. Until that task had been completed he would not have died. And yet Moshe attended to that task immediately. He gathered together the army, he appointed Elazar to lead the people into battle and went and fulfilled the task that G-d had commanded him to do. And then he passed away soon after that.
Of course, we have got the whole Book of Devarim still to come; the Fifth Book of the Chumash. That book contains the final speeches that Moshe gave to the people. So once he had completed this final act he was ready to take leave of the people and to end his leadership and to deliver his final speeches and words of warning to the people on behalf of G-d. But he could have delayed all of that. But he knew that he had a commandment to fulfil, he had a moral responsibility – the interests of the community were such that that task had to be fulfilled as soon as possible so that the people could begin the conquest of the Land of Israel under the new leadership of Joshua. So Moshe attended to it immediately. Even though it meant that as a result he would die. It’s a remarkable act of self-sacrifice.
But you see that kind of self-sacrifice throughout his life. He was completely for the sake of heaven. There are many examples. Take last week’s portion, Pinchas, where Moshe asks G-d to appoint a new leader. And again here it was an act of tremendous self-sacrifice on his part because he took the initiative. He said to G-d, what’s going to be after I’m gone? So often you find the leader is not interested in succession because they are more interested in themselves than in the interests of the cause. Moshe was there to serve the people and he was concerned with what’s going to happen afterwards? So he said G-d must appoint somebody.
Moshe had this capacity the whole time to do things for the sake of heaven. Not for his own sake, not for his own personal ego and self-interest, but to do that which is right for the sake of heaven. And that requires great strength. That’s why we keep on saying, “Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened”.
There are other examples. If you go back to the beginning of the appointment of Moshe, G-d comes to Moshe and says will you lead the people? Initially he doesn’t want to do it. G-d was offering him the biggest job of all history, of all time. He was offering him to be the CEO of the liberation of the Jewish people from Egypt and the CEO of their whole destiny from Egypt to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, and to the entrance to the Land of Israel. All of that was going to be under his command. He was going to be in charge of the people at the time of the greatest, most momentous events in all of history. And when G-d makes this offer he says well I am not really able to, I don’t know if I am the best person, surely you can find somebody else. He wanted to make sure that in terms of the cause he was the best person available to fulfil the objectives of G-d. So here again we see that self-sacrifice, of doing things for the sake of heaven.
Another example is when he comes down from the mountain after the people have been given the Ten Commandments engraved on stone and he sees the people worshipping the golden calf and he throws down the tablets and smashes them. And Rav Eliya Meir Bloch, the Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, explains that that took enormous self-sacrifice. Because one of his major tasks that G-d had given him was not only to take the people out of Egypt but also to be the instrument through which the Torah came into the world. He is defined as Moshe Rebbeinu – Moshe our teacher – the one through whom the Torah was given to us. When he broke those tablets he was really saying, if the people are going to worship the golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai they do not deserve to have the Torah and the entire expedition of the giving of the Torah has been a failure. But he was prepared to do that because he felt that was the right thing, even though it would mean that his own mission would have ended in failure.
We know in the end that G-d forgave the people and Moshe came down with a second set of tablets and things worked out well in the end. But Moshe was prepared to sacrifice everything in order to do the right thing. And that’s how we need to live our lives, for the sake of heaven. “Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened”.
Giving others strength
There is one other dimension to the concept of strength and that is not only to be strong within ourselves but to give other people strength. The Torah says (Vayikra 25:35) that, “If your brother becomes impoverished and his hand falters, you shall strengthen him, the stranger and resident, and he shall live with you”. The verse speaks about strengthening him and Rashi, based on the Talmud, says that the verse means that we must hold-up and strengthen such a person before they have fallen because once a person has fallen down completely it is much harder to help him stand-up. Part of our task in the world is to make people strong, to give them strength. It’s a very important approach to kindness which is one of the central values of Judaism and what our Sages call chesed. Loving kindness through acts of kindness such as visiting the sick or comforting mourners, burying the dead, or clothing the naked. Then there is tzedakah, charity, which is giving people money and resources to help them on their feet. But the whole focus of it is to make them strong.
So often when we are kind to people we make them weak because a person can be kind to another person in a condescending manner – in a way which makes them feel dependent and disempowers them, making them feel that they are completely dependent on your good wishes and in a way feeling they cannot help themselves.
The chesed, the loving kindness, and the charity that Judaism focuses on is a form of chesed which gives people strength and doesn’t make them weak. Which empowers them and doesn’t disempower them. Because we need to give people strength if they don’t have that internal strength and can’t stand on their own two feet. And everything that we do to help needs to help them to stand on their own two feet. It can be for a while that a person is unable to stand on their feet, and that we have to literally help them on the way. But the ultimate goal is to give that person the internal personal strength to be able to do the job without us, and to be able to live with dignity without us to give them strength. And that applies when we are giving, that applies to raising children – the purpose of raising a child is to give them strength to be able to be an independent adult, in such a way that they can lead a life of goodness and decency in following the commandments of G-d but they have the internal strength and motivation to do it themselves. And that’s, in fact, what Moshe did when he placed both his hands on Joshua as a sign that he had been appointed as the successor. G-d told him put one hand, Moshe put both hands.
There is this concept of support. G-d is described as the one who supports. It says about G-d in the Book of Psalms and we say it in our morning prayers that He is the one who supports those who fall. And this support means enabling that person to stand on their own, not picking them up. It’s supporting them so that they can stand properly. And that’s why it says He supports those who are falling. The idea is to try and support a person before they have fallen on the ground because once they have fallen on the ground they are disempowered. It’s very hard for them to get on their feet. We need to support them before they have fallen. That’s why the Talmud says that there is a great mitzvah for a person to help another person before they become too desperate. So if the person’s business is starting to fail, help them so that it doesn’t collapse and then they need welfare money. If a person’s marriage is starting to fail, help them so that it doesn’t collapse and they end-up with a divorce. If a person’s health is starting to fail, help them so that they can become well again. The idea is to catch the person before they fall. Why? Because the focus is in getting them to stand on their own two feet that they can be strong in themselves.
So part of our mitzvah of being strong is that we need to give people strength. Great people are strong within themselves but they create strong people around them. They give strength to people. They empower people. They don’t disempower people. Sometimes you are around another person and that person will make you feel inadequate. A great person will always make you feel good about yourself – to be around them is to draw strength and to have the motivation of believing that you can do it. That’s really what it says, when it says in the verse that we started with at the beginning of our discussion, that G-d gave his people strength, and it refers to the strength that is Torah. What we see from there is that G-d wanted to give us strength. He wants us to be strong. He also didn’t want to create human beings who are disempowered. He wanted to create human beings that are empowered. He gave us free choice. And he gave us the Torah so that we could be strong and that we would not be weak. That’s what He wants at the end of the day. He doesn’t want weak people, He wants strong people. And we have to strive all the time for the strength to be able to do the right thing. Even though a person may be physically weak or financially weak, even within that weakness we need to find that inner strength over which we have control over. That deep strength that no matter what the surrounding circumstances are we can achieve that deep inner strength and we can help others achieve that deep inner strength too. And that deep inner strength comes from heaven, and that’s why everything that we do needs to be for the sake of heaven.
And that’s why we come back to the Mishna that any community dedicated to heaven will endure forever because when something is dedicated to heaven it’s connected to G-d. When it is connected to G-d, it is connected to the strength and the energy of Hashem and that gives strength and energy for the future. And so when we connect ourselves to Hashem and to His Torah we are drawing on the deepest resources and recesses of strength in our lives so that we can live with great strength.
Let us all this Shabbos absorb and be blessed with those tremendous words that we say at the conclusion of each one of the Five Books, “Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened”.
Thank you for listening. Shabbat Shalom and G-d Bless.