Yael Unterman
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A spirit of creation and commotion

Human beings are prone to intertia, but when we let go and allow the spirit of God to move us and change us, we may create entire worlds
The water, rippling under the wind. (iStock)
The water, rippling under the wind. (iStock)

And so we commence, once and ever again
together traversing another Torah year.
What shall the glowing words
reveal this time?
What encounters occur
twixt ancient verses and this-moment hearts?

* * *

I confess that whenever the Torah cycle comes back round to Genesis, a feeling of profound intimidation arises in me. Every single word and letter, jot and tittle of the creation verses seems to be packed with the mysteries of the universe; how can I skim through them as I would the back of a cereal box?! They demand slowing to a near standstill, and devoting entire essays on just one or two words. And that is precisely what I plan to do here.

One of the most mysterious and intriguing phrases in the creation verses is ruah Elohim, the “wind” or “spirit of God.”

1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And a wind from God hovered upon the face of the waters.

On its own, the word ruah is given six possible meanings by Maimonides: the element of air; a wind; the life force; the soul; prophecy; and willpower. Abravanel adds another meaning, speech.

As a phrase, ruah Elohim, it makes many appearances in the Tanach. We also find a similar phrase, but with a different name of God, the Tetragrammaton: ruah YHVH (the spirit of the L-RD). In some books, such as Samuel, both appear, and in others, neither appear. In Judges, there is only ruah YHVH, while unusually in Isaiah 61:1, we find two for the price of one: Ruah Adonai YHVH.[1]

We won’t delve into the meanings of all the different instances. Instead, let’s return to Genesis 1:2 and ask, what is the significance of ruah Elohim here?

For some, though not all, Christians, this spirit is the none other than the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost — the third entity of the trinity. It thus takes on a highly significant role in Christian theology. For Jews, though, it barely registers on the radar. In my entire life as an Orthodox Jew, learning Torah from numerous and varied sources, I cannot recall encountering the phrase “ruah Elohim” even once. More common is “ruah hakodesh,” holy spirit, generally referring to prophecy; in rabbinic thought, this term may have superseded ruah Elohim.[2]

Can we nonetheless uncover a particular Jewish meaning to this ruah Elohim appearing so early in the Torah — one that can speak to us in a way aligned with our general outlook? We immediately have some basic questions to pose: What is it? How does it relate to God and creation? Why and how does it “move upon the face of the waters?”

Let’s begin by delving into classic commentators. We discover that for some, such as Ibn Ezra, this was a physical wind, whose role was to dry up the water; and he explains that it is referred to here as “a wind of God” due to it acting in the service of God. In contrast, Rashi, in highly picturesque language, tells us of its decidedly spiritual nature:

The throne of Divine Glory was standing in space, hovering over the face of the waters by the breath of the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, and by His command, even as a dove hovers over its nest (in old French, acoveter).

The Maharal, in his Gur Aryeh commentary on Rashi, explains that Rashi’s rejection of the physical wind explanation is due to the verb “hovering” — because the usual verb for a physical wind is menashevet, blowing. Indeed, the real winds with which we are familiar tend to move from one place to another, not hover in stationary fashion above one spot.

However, we find the verb normally associated with ruah Elohim is “rests upon” (Tz-L-Ch) or “fills” (M-L-A) someone; not “hovers” (R-Ch-F). And this verb root R-Ch-F is itself unusual. The two other instances of its use in the Tanach refer not to winds, but to a bird hovering over its young (Deut 32:11) and to bones shaking or trembling (Jeremiah 23:9)! Abravanel, scrutinizing all three instances, explains that there is a movement occurring — a force causes movement. The wind causes movement in the water; the bird comes to shake up its offspring; horror causes Jeremiah’s bones to tremble.

In which case, what we have is a unique combination in all of the Bible of ruah Elohim and merachefet that means that the divine ruah — whether physical wind or spirit — causes motion and upheaval in the waters.

Now let’s throw into the mix one more fact: the Aramaic translations — Targum Yonatan and Targum Yerushalmi (though not Onkelos) — add an extra, unexpected word in their translation of Genesis 1:2, writing of a divine “ruah (de)rahamin,” a wind/spirit of mercy.[3] They likewise translate the wind that God brings to make the waters recede after the great flood in Noah’s time (Gen. 18:1) as ruah (de)rahamin.[4]

Why this insertion of mercy into creation, especially when we have an opposite tradition, that the world was created with din, strict judgment?

Perhaps we can suggest two profound messages here, relating to two fundamental aspects of the world as know it:

1) The first relates to boundaries. The wind of creation made the waters divide and recede, in order to bring about the creation of land. God’s mercy lies in dividing everything from everything else. Without division, we have no world, just an undifferentiated mass of water, of primary material, or of divine infinity. The divine name, Shadai, is taken by the midrash to mean “she’amar dai” — who told the world, enough! Namely, stop here; there is a boundary! As it says in Hagigah 12a:

Resh Lakish said: what is I am El Shaddai (Gen: 35:11)? I am he who said to the world “enough!” Resh Lakish [also] said: in the hour that the Holy, blessed be He, created the sea, it started to expand — until the Holy, blessed be He, reproached it. It dried out as it was said: He reproaches the sea and makes it dry; and all the rivers makes desolate (Nahum 1:4).

Boundaries placed upon the sea are crucial for our survival as humans, as we see all too clearly and terrifyingly when tsunamis and tornados overturn them. Boundaries and divisions are also necessary for our sanity. Ben Zoma, one of the four sages who entered the Pardes, who subsequently “went insane,”[5] is described in Hagigah 15a as standing on the Temple Mount and behaving very oddly. He explained to the inquiring Rabbi Joshua:

I was gazing between the upper and lower waters, and there are only three finger(breadth)s between them, as it says And the Spirit of God hovered upon the face of the waters – like a dove that hovers over its offspring and does not touch them.

Note how two of the Torah’s three “hoverings” meet in this text: the dove that hovers in Deuteronomy, and the miniscule gap between the upper and lower waters, the gap that the ruah Elohim must widen in order to create boundaries. We can infer that Ben Zoma lost his sanity because he saw the world without its divisions; he gazed at the place where the waters met and it was essentially undivided. He had “too much honey,” in the words of the verse quoted with reference to him in Tosefta Hagiga 2.

A lack of boundaries is associated with mental imbalance and inability to live in reality. We can therefore appreciate the mercy of boundaries in the world and in ourselves. This is not necessarily our end point — I believe that we should strive to transcend boundaries and move towards oneness, God’s reality; but not in a manner that will cause us to go insane, rather with measured and wise steps.

2) A second idea that arises from the examination of the ruah Elohim, whose purpose was to cause commotion in the waters, is this: forces that cause turbulence and commotion, motion and upheaval, are creative forces.

If I were to do “bibliodrama,” by giving the water a voice, and ask it how it is feeling during this dawn of the world, I imagine it might tell me that it did not enjoy being “upheaved” and split apart like that. Very reasonable — who would? Yet for the world to move forward and progress, the waters must of necessity divide and make room for land to appear. So too the Reed Sea many years later had to split upon God’s command, in order to facilitate the progress of Israel’s history and the final justice against the Egyptians. We would imagine a sea would feel very reluctant to split. Yet, on the words (Ex. 14:27), “the sea returned to its strength,” midrash Bereshit Rabbah 5:5 makes a word play on “to its strength” (le-eytano) and changes the letter order around to “to its stipulation” (le-tnai’o). Meaning, to the stipulation made when it was created, that when the Israelites would arrive, it would split. After splitting in this unnatural way, the sea truly returns to/fulfills its original stipulation.

We, like the waters, are inhabited by strong forces of inertia. We do not want to change (hollering “who moved my cheese??“), much less split entirely apart. Yet if we can let go and allow ruah Elohim, the spirit of the Prime Mover in the world, to hover upon us, move us and change us, then entire worlds may be created, and history may progress.

American businessman J. Williard Marriott said: “Good lumber does not grow with ease. The stronger the wind, the stronger the trees.” Let’s take our inspiration from the waters and gracefully agree to the wind-driven forward motion of our lives and of the world in general, even when it is a tad uncomfortable and we would rather things stayed as they were. In this way, we become an aligned and organic part of a world constantly being reinvented, as it says in our daily prayer: “God renews, in goodness, daily and constantly, the work of Creation.”

[1] In Jewish tradition, this is pronounced, “ruah Adonai Elohim” — the vowels under YHVH are unusually those of the word, “Elohim,” not the usual vowels for the Tetragrammaton.

[2] In the Babylonian Talmud, ruah Elohim is mentioned very few times and almost always as part of a quotation of our Genesis verse, while ruah hakodesh, in contrast, appears several dozen times in talmudic discussions as a useful and current term for supernatural knowledge or a prophetic-type state.

[3] The verb they use to translate merachefet is menatva/menashva, which might imply that they lean towards the physical wind explanation.

[4] In this same vein, Rabbi Menachem Kasher, in his Torah Shelemah, quotes Tanhuma Yashan to the effect that these two winds — at the time of creation and at the time of Noah — were identical.

[5] According to the version in the Tosefta and the Babylonian Talmud; Shir Hashirim Rabbah and the Yerushalmi have Ben Azai as the one who is “nifga” i.e., goes mad.

About the Author
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based international author, lecturer, Bibliodrama facilitator and life coach. Her first book "Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards . Her second book, a collection of fictional stories, "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing", was a finalist for the USA Best Book Awards. Contact Yael if you would like to participate in Bibliodrama sessions on Zoom.
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