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Books that Stay with You, Even After You Have Finished Reading Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Saturday, July 26, 2014

One of the things I’ve found in reading on a kindle, is that I am not as aware of when the end of a book is approaching. I’m not yet in the habit of looking regularly at the percentage at the bottom of the page and so I’ve been caught off guard as I am reading.  All of a sudden I realize I am at 89%- and when it’s a book I was enjoying, I’m not ready for it to end.

When you read from a paper book or to step back to an even earlier technology, a scroll,  the end is more apparent and has a greater finality. Perhaps for that reason Judaism has developed rituals around finishing a book of the Torah, (we think each book may have originally been its own scroll), and a tractate of the Talmud, (these were definitely their own scrolls). When we finish a book of the Torah as we did this morning, among Ashkenazi Jews, the entire congregation participates in the conclusion chanting Chazak, Chaza Venitchazek.

The rituals for the conclusion of a tractate of Talmud are even more involved. The ceremony is called Hadran and includes a prayer, a special speech, and a festive meal. This ceremony is so important that if you complete a tractate of the Talmud on a day which is a minor fast day, that is not Yom Kippur or Tisha B’av, but one of the other fasts that became customary over the centuries, the person who completed the study and all the guests, were exempt from the fast.

These festive meals can get pretty fancy. Perhaps some of you were aware of the international celebrations at the end of the study of the complete Talmud, by those who participate in daf yomi, a page a day. On August 2, 2012 90,000 people gathered at MetLife Stadium home of the New York Giants and New York Jets- the largest crowd ever at that stadium. Others participated in celebrations all around the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia as well as in many cities in Israel, Interestingly about 20% of the participants were women, a higher than expected ratio for a type of study which traditionally has been a male bastion.

The talk given at the Hadran ceremony ties the theme of the end of the tractate back to the theme with which it began, or in some communities ties it to the theme of the beginning of the next tractate, in both cases creating continuity. As on Simchat Torah, when we complete the reading of Deuteronomy and immediately start the book of Genesis, the ceremony for the completion of a tractate of the Talmud, pushes you immediately into the next step of study, whether a review of what you have studied or the starting of the first chapter of the next tractate.

The prayer recited is unusual in that it turns the tractate into a sort of treasured person, perhaps a teacher saying: We will return to you Tractate, and you will return to us. Our mind is on you and your mind is on us. We will not forget you and you will not forget us, neither in this world or in the world to come.

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt likens this prayer to our relationship with a book or poem that has been especially moving to us. Even after we have finished reading it, we continue to think about it. The characters or scenes stay with us, the words linger in our mind. The impact of a moving book or poem is not just about information, but somehow it changes us and how we relate to the world around us.

David, the goal of Torah study, is that each verse, each chapter, each book of the Torah, will be like that cherished book or poem, that lingers with us. It will change us in some subtle way and influence the way we relate to others. It is not just about remembering the text, but about applying it. Like your D’var Torah it will turn out to be not just about what happened centuries ago, but about what we should be doing every day of our lives.

When we finish a book of the Torah, we say Chazak Chazak ve nitchazek. Literally this means “Be Strong, be strong and we shall be strengthened”, but as you rightly pointed out, this isn’t about physical prowess, weight lifting or being able to beat someone else up. After all, when the rabbis ask who is strong, they answer, the one able to exercise self-restraint. A better understanding perhaps of the words we chant would be: may we be strengthened through what we have just learned and strong enough to continue learning.

This is not so far from the meaning of the words as one might think. The word strength is used in the Bible for many things other than might. It is part of the praise for a good wife, the section from proverbs read traditionally by the husband on Friday night after the lighting of the candles, “Strength and dignity are her clothing.” The Jewish philosopher Philo points out that bodily strength can easily come to an end thorough illness or infirmity, but this spiritual strength can continue throughout our lives. Rabbi Judah Ben Ilai, in Tractate Baba Batra in the Talmud, points out that rock is strong but iron cleaves it, iron is strong but fire softens it, fire is strong but water quenches it, water is strong, but clouds carry it, Clouds are strong but the wind scatters it. The only real strength he concludes is Tzedakah, righteousness, quoting from the prophet Jeremiah,

“Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, or the strong man in his strength, or the rich man in his riches. But only in this should one glory, in devotion to God, so that one acts in the world with chesed, mishpat, vetzedakah, kindness, justice and equity in the world, for in these I delight.”

David, we pray that the memory of this completion of the book of Numbers will stay with you, moving you to further study and application of the teachings of our tradition.

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