Tohu Vavohu

Tohu VaVohu-Formless and Void, Chaos - Jewish Art Quilts

“Bereshit barah Elohim et haShamayim v’et ha’aretzIn the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). 

Most of us are very familiar with the above words, as they are the first 7 of the 79,847 words that make up the Torah. This is also the first verse of the 5,845 verses that result in the complete Torah. We find these words in Genesis, or, Bereshit, which translates in Hebrew to “in the beginning.” The beginning of the Torah tells us of the six days during which G-d created all things of heaven and earth. G-d is referred to as “Elohim,” a plural word, not to indicate anything other than oneness, but likely to show a mighty ability to bring together all forces, poles, and things imagined. G-d is the ultimate Creator. Interestingly enough, G-d did not seem to have a blank canvas to work from. The Torah tells us: “Now the earth was unformed and void…” (Gen. 1:2). Unformed and void, or tohu vavohu.” Out of this unformed, void, dark canvas, “G-d said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light” (Gen. 1:3). There is certainly much to unpack here, and the greatest of sages have made many attempts to find all of the minutiae hidden in these simple, yet complex and powerful words. 

There are matters addressed in this script, and the thoughts and ideas surrounding it, that seem to be relevant to our contemporary lives. First, why and how was the earth “tohu vavohu”– unformed and void, or sometimes translated to “worthless and waste,” before G-d began to adorn the world with all of His majesty? Many scholars have compared “tohu vavohu” to some sort of unimaginable and indecipherable chaos that existed before it was given proper form and function. There is a parable in the Talmud told by Rabbi Eleazar that compares “tohu vavohu” to the site upon which a king has built his palace. In this story, a king has constructed his palace on a site of sewers, dunghills, and waste matter. Should someone happen to come along and say, “this palace was built upon a site of sewers, dunghills, and waste matter,” perhaps one might value the palace less (P. Hag 2:1, 47c; Gen R. 1:5). Rabbi Eleazar actually promoted the idea that we should not look too deeply into the reason why G-d created the world on a canvas of “tohu vavohu,” as perhaps people would value creation less. Rabbi Eleazar implied that we should perhaps not pry into things too deeply all the time or examine matters beyond our mind’s grasp. 

While Rabbi Eleazar might have had a point, it is quite difficult to turn away from challenging questions, and simply stick our nose in the commandments and halacha. Let us look at where we are now as a society, and as a world. As the days seem to sometimes saunter on, we do not know if and when we will be able to resume or restart. Orders from one governmental body directly contrast another’s recommendations. We see a portion of the population outside at restaurants, or walking down the street, sometimes in groups that defy suggestions or mandates. Some are wearing masks covering their noses and mouths, some are wearing masks covering only their mouths, which deems them useless. Others are not donning any sort of face shield at all. Many states have “re-opened,” while others are in a seemingly unending series of nebulous “phases” that indicate when participation in certain activities will be “safe” based upon possibly arbitrary measurables. We are unsure when we will be able to physically hold our loved ones and dear friends once again. As our own Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim), Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, loom largely on the fast-approaching horizon, we do not know if we will be able to congregate in any physical fashion at all. The world as we once knew it has changed. We now live in a world that feels “tohu vavohu.” We are living in a present that feels unformed and sometimes even void. Perhaps it feels as if the newest version of our world has yet to be created. If it has, we do not seem to be in on the plan, and Rabbi Eleazar begins to feel more relevant in his commentary. The answers truly do seem to be beyond our reach, and overwhelming to consider. 

During a time that feels chaotic, unformed, and void, many look to the Torah, or their respective traditions’ scriptures for answers. I had a conversation today wherein I was asked, “How do we know that G-d even exists?” I would like to introduce to you another story from the Talmud. In reference to the creation of the world–a man came to Rabbi Akiva and asked, “This world–who  created it?” Rabbi Akiva replied with, “The Holy One, blessed be He.” The man asked Akiva to “Show me clear proof.” The next day when the questioning man came back, Rabbi Akiva asked him, “What are you wearing?” The man replied to Akiva, “A garment.” Akiva said, “Who made it?” After the man answered with, “A weaver,” Rabbi Akiva said, “I don’t believe you. Show me clear proof.” The man seemed to fumble, saying, “What can I show you? Don’t you know that a weaver made it?” Akiva replied, “And you, do you not know that the Holy One made His world?” Rabbi Akiva’s students, hearing Akiva’s point, still asked him, “But what is the clear proof?” in reference to the G-d’s creation of the world. Rabbi Akiva answered, “My children, even as a house proclaims its builder, a garment its weaver, or a door its carpenter, so does the world proclaim the Holy One, blessed be He, that He created it” (B. Tem. 3). This answer seems to imply that just as we know that a weaver created a garment, we know that G-d created the world. This answer seems to require quite a bit of faith. We can witness a weaver make a garment, or a carpenter build a door. 

Can we witness G-d create the world? 

To attempt to answer that question, I promise only one more Talmudic reference! It is written that Emperor Hadrian told Rabbi Joshua b. Chananya, “I desire to behold your G-d.” Rabbi Chananya told the Emperor that this was impossible. As the Emperor kept pleading, Chananya asked him to gaze directly at the sun, which was high in the sky of the summer solstice. Hadrian replied, “I cannot,” to which Rabbi Chananya quickly replied, “You admit that you are unable to look at the sun, which is only one of the attendants upon the Holy One, blessed be He; how much more beyond your power must it be to look at G-d Himself! (Chul. 59b et seq.) According to the Torah, G-d created the “luminaries,” which included the sun and the stars on the fourth day of creation. If human beings are unable to look at even one of these creations, why should we be able to gaze directly at G-d?

If you believe that creation is a never ending process, which can be seen in all matters of nature, I would say, maybe yes, we can witness G-d create the world. 

Perhaps our specific beliefs about the nature of the Divine are not always the most important or pressing matter to consider. However you believe that the universe came to be might be a very personal experience. What we do know is that we are here; in the thick of what has been and is being created, in the here and now. In terms of Torah, I tend to agree with our Mishkan T’filah when it says, “The more we devote ourselves to it, the more it grows and gives” (p. 29). As we read the Torah, we notice that directly following the disorder of “tohu vavohu”, we read–”And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And G-d saw the light, that it was good…” (Gen. 1:3-4). G-d seemed to utter, with words, the world into existence. As we wade through our own unformed world, what words are we saying to ourselves and others? Are they positive or negative? Optimistic or pessimistic? If we were truly created in a Divine image, how powerful are our words? Can we create small universes with our words as G-d created our entire canvas from which to work? I believe we can. 

Since we are all human, and we will be challenged with moments of discouragement, always remember that when the earth was “tohu vavohu,” G-d spoke light into existence, and saw that it was good. The light after the chaos is good. If we can speak to the unknown with a sense of wonder and excitement, perhaps our day-to-day lives can become even a bit more joyful and filled with hope. 

May we all be blessed to accept as Rabbi Eleazar, have faith as Rabbi Akiva, or marvel as Rabbi Chananya. Or, if we are unsure and questioning, may we simply find a bit of comfort and hope for the good light while we navigate the “new Bereshit” that we must all make our way through. 

Shalom,

Joshua

Published by Joshua Gray

I am Joshua Gray. I am a husband, father, not-for-profit-worker by day, and a former professional actor/singer. I am very active in the Jewish community in my area, helping to teach at religious school on Sundays, while also serving on the board of trustees at my local temple. My relationship with Judaism is a joy of mine, and I find great pleasure in studying texts and learning more and more Hebrew. I still enjoy warbling tunes, and I even got to sing the Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur, which was a definite highlight. Please feel free to contact me with any ideas for topics, conversations, or general inquiries. Shalom!

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