“Words that sound alike.” Sounds like a Jeopardy! category, doesn’t it?
“Words that sound alike” can also apply to the opening and closing of this week’s parsha, Pekuday, the second part of this week’s double-portion parsha, and the closing reading in the second book of the Torah, the Book of Exodus.
At this point in the Torah, we have been spending weeks tackling the assembly of a temporary structure, the Mishkan, or the portable tabernacle for worship, while wandering in the desert. A few weeks ago, as my commentary then pointed out, in Terumah, we received the equivalent of the Ikea assembly manual for the Mishkan. As Terumah opens, we have all the parts laid out in front of us, the silver the copper, the pillars, and even the hooks for the pillars. The first instruction in Pekuday, is that word itself, as the names of the Torah portions derive from the first significant word, in this case, Pekuday, or “accounting.”
This is physical accounting, debits and credits, inventorying, do we have all the items we were instructed to have in order to build the temporary Mishkan? The answer is yes, and not only is the construction project successful, it is so successful that it is pleasing to G-D. G-D is still referred to as Adonai in this portion, or Lord (eloheinu comes later). Our work is so pleasing to G-D that G-D assures us that the Mishkan is acceptable by signifying G-D’s presence in the Mishkan continuously. The last verse in Pekuday is, “For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and a fire was on it by night before the eyes of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.”
The religions that embrace our Bible seem to concur that every word is significant, even when it appears, at the surface, to be monotonous or repetitive, and that the writing is poetic with additional meaning to be explored. I agree that this must be so, otherwise, why invest so many chapters in the building of a temporary house of worship, why begin this chapter with the requirement to start with an accounting, given to us as Pekuday, a hard asset accounting?
Perhaps it is because we also carry with us an obligation to look in the mirror with a soft accounting, to check in with how we are doing against how we can be and how we want to be. This is referred to as a Cheshbon, which is also translated into English as an “accounting.” We usually see this phrase as Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh an introspection into our soul, most often at the High Holy Day period.
It is hard, G-d knows, to be introspective. By telling us, on the surface, to take an accounting of what we see around us, Pekuday, perhaps G-d is telling us in a sub-meaning, Cheshbon, to take an accounting of what is inside of us also. When I tackle an Ikea (™) assembly manual, inevitably there is a mistake. It turns out imperfect, deserving of improvement, just like my own Cheshbon, internal accounting, always deserving of improvement.
One Kol Nidre, I was fortunate to attend one of the services at Central Synagogue in Manhattan. To me, this shul “gets it.” In our “unchurched” age, where all houses of worship struggle for attendance, compounded by our struggle for minyanim, Central Synagogue caps its membership at 2,500 households … and has a waiting list. The Assistant Rabbi or Student Rabbi who led Kol Nidre that year in the auditorium to which I, as a guest, was assigned, opened his welcoming message for the Kol Nidre service, the first of the five Yom Kippur services, with perhaps the most powerful and pertinent topic sentence for Kol Nidre I have ever heard: “Welcome to G-d’s do-over day.” “Welcome to G-d’s do-over day.”
Just as Pekuday is the accounting of what we have assembled for a temporary structure, Cheshbon is the accounting of what we have assembled, as this point in time, of our internal structure. External and internal, yin and yang in Chinese philosophy, the constant joint prayers for healing in Judaism, for refuah ha-nefesh v’refuah ha-guf, for the healing of the soul and the healing of the body.
Since Pekuday closes a book of Torah, it is customary for the congregation to stand and recite “Chazak, Chazak, v’nitchazeik.” Chazak is often translated as strength, and the phrase recited at the end of a book of Torah is often translated as, “Be strong, be strong, and we will be encouraged” or “Be strong, be strong, and we will make an effort.” [URJ]
But, when we descend from an aliyah, or Torah reading honor, we are greeted with Yasher Koach, which is also translated as “Be strong,” or “you should be blessed with strength.” Our Yiddish-fluent ancestors, like my mother Of Blessed Memory, would cry out for keuch, a Yiddish version of koach, asking G-d to give them the strength to go on.
I reached out to my scholar colleagues who teach me Biblical and prayer book Hebrew where I am weak. Cantor and Colleague Michael Zoosman, a Board Certified Chaplain like me, giving his heart and soul at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, tried to help, but, alas, he admitted to being a bit confused also. Mike explained to me that Chazak is more often the noun for strength, and koach is more often the verb to strengthen. Once again, words that sound alike, “Strength” as Chazak and “Strength” as koach.
Perhaps, just perhaps, Chazak and Koach are two ways of looking at strength, just like Pekuday and Cheshbon are two ways of looking at accounting … external and internal. We have muscle strength, most immediately to lift the Torah high after reading Pekuday, and we have inner strength, to lift ourselves high, as we look at ourselves in our virtual mirrors.
May you be blessed with inner strength and outer strength, and the wisdom to keep growing both.
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.