In memory of the victims of the simchat Torah massacre and the many others murdered in Israel this past week.
In general, when writing an essay, one should begin with a ‘trigger’, a story to draw our interest. This week, I believe there is not a Jew who needs to be ‘triggered’. All of us are triggered. All of us are hurting. All of us have no idea as to how to answer the question, “How are you?”
And yet, this is the first shabbat of the year, which is supposed to be a new beginning. The shabbat of Bereishit. The Shabbat of creation. What can our parashah bring to us in this specific moment? In thinking of the darkness we experienced this week, I was reminded of the primordial state of the world, a state which can accurately describe what we feel.
And the world was a formless void, with darkness covering the abyss. A strong wind hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:2).
Unlike many medieval commentators who argue the beginning of the Torah describes creation ex nihilo, creation from nothing, the literal reading of the opening verses seem to imply that creation begins with a world that is uninhabitable and cannot support any form of life. The opening lines of Genesis describe a world of total chaos, an endless watery abyss that covers everything, and an utter black darkness. This is a world without day and night, as time is meaningless. There is no need to mark time because the world has no purpose, no meaning. It is a world of death, devoid of light.
The great flood in next week’s parashah will hearken back to these same images, as all life perishes and the world returns to this primordial state. This is a world without law, without meaning, without purpose, without norms, without order. It is from this chaotic place that God utters the first words. ‘Let there be light!’ The entire first chapter of Genesis describes God’s methodical creation of a universe in which life is possible. God separates the waters above and the waters below, creating a place in which humanity may live (day two). God creates the dry land, protecting it from being overrun by water by placing the waters in the oceans and seas. God then provides all sorts of plants and grasses to sustain life (day three). God creates the sun, moon and stars, establishing a notion of time (day four). God fills the skies and seas with all forms of creatures, surprisingly adapted to living in environments in which we cannot survive (day five). Finally, God creates all the animals of the land, with humanity created in God’s image (day six). All the creatures of the earth are blessed- even commanded- to be ‘fruitful and multiply’, bringing more life and vitality into the world.
The first chapter is not a scientific story of creation, but a religious and moral one. The Torah teaches us in this first chapter that above all, God is about life. The teaching is clear for us as well. Any person who invokes the name of God and embodies a nihilistic, wanton death cult of destruction, desecrates God and God’s plans for this world. They diminish the imprint of life and blessing and return the world to the dark primordial abyss. Anyone- anyone– who claims that Hamas represents legitimate resistance fails to understand that Hamas and groups like them do not represent any road or direction towards peace and understanding. They are willing to destroy anything and everything- including their own people- to fulfill their death drive. People who support them are accomplices, plain and simple.
Freud wrote about the boundary between civilization, namely the rules and norms upon which people agree, and the ever-present underlying savagery and aggression which may suddenly erupt. Hamas has crossed the boundary between civilization and savagery. They have given us a window to see the dark, violent, and turbulent abyss that proceeded God’s proclamation of light and life.
In an interview with the Times of Israel, the Israeli intellectual Micah Goodman said something that struck me. On the first day of the invasion, for many communities in the Gaza envelope, there simply was not a State of Israel; the very functions for which the State was created failed them. People feel personally betrayed. In Kfar Azza, in which scores of people were violently butchered, there was no Israeli response for almost twenty hours. On that first day, there were pogroms in the State of Israel itself. Goodman says, it was as if ‘Israelis got a call from the 1903 Kishinev pogrom’ reminding them why we need a State in the first place. We all are asking the question where was the army, where was the government, how could this be? This is a question that will need to be answered, and Israelis will demand it
However, in his offhand comment, he triggered another thought in me. In the midst of one horrific day our brothers and sisters experienced the dark abyss of death and chaos encroaching on the order and law we tell ourselves exists. Even many (but certainly not all) of the western press for a moment stopped equivocating and news correspondents were visibly shocked to the core. The people of the Gaza envelope, and all of us by extension, suddenly saw the darkness of destruction from those who deny the sacredness of all life, actually embracing the terrifying darkness we all fear. While often there are greys in life- and certainly in politics, here there is only a stark contrast- light and dark, good and evil, life and destruction.
Many Biblical scholars, most prominently Yehezkel Kaufman, has argued that the first chapter of Genesis is evidence of the revolutionary thrust of the monotheistic idea in the history of religion. Unlike other Ancient Near Eastern creation myths, God creates by Divine fiat, unopposed. God does not battle animate forces, but the world emerges simply through the heavenly word of God. God fashions the inanimate material into the world we know. However, other biblical texts might tell a different story, a story that God is in an active struggle with the forces of darkness.
According to the opening verses of the Torah, God declares for there to be light and divides the light from the darkness. While this verse is understandable enough, the sources of light- the sun, moon and stars- are only created on the fourth day. Thus, Rabbi Elazar opines that the light mentioned here is not a physical, but a spiritual light- the light of righteousness reserved for the upright (BT Chagigah 12a). Rabbi Elazar adds that God looks into the future, noticing than certain generations of people will use this spiritual light for evil, and therefore God hides this light for ‘the righteous in the world to come.’ Thus, when God says, “it was good’, it refers to this future spiritual light reserved for the righteous. He quotes the text from Isaiah (3:10). “Say of the righteous that it shall be good for them, for they shall eat the fruit of their actions.”
Rabbi Elazar makes a surprising, even shocking statement. Just as God created a physical world, God initially created a world which would reflect the light of righteousness. Sadly, God sees that his creations will fail, and therefore this supernal light is concealed, only to be revealed at the end of time. Indeed, in the opening chapters of Genesis, death and suffering emerge because of the actions of people rebelling against the Divine will (Ch. 2) and culminating with fratricide (Ch. 3). At the beginning of next week’s parashah, God will regret having created the world altogether, as the world is filled with lawlessness; ironically the Hebrew word used is hamas. In essence, God’s plans are thwarted by the darkness and violence of his own creatures. The fulfillment of God’s vision is squarely placed with our own struggle against the forces of darkness, ultimately through Abraham and his progeny. If we wait for God, God waits for us as well.
Even more radical, there are Biblical texts which seem to hint of earlier notions that God was from the beginning in an active struggle against death and nihilistic forces. In other words, God did not decree death as a punishment once the world was created, but death was an independent force which needed to be subdued to create life in the first place. Consider the following words of Isaiah in his eschatological vision of the future:
He will destroy death (hamavet) forever
My Lord God will wipe the tears away
From all faces (25:8)
Perhaps this is poetic, but in this text death is personified, seen as an independent force which at the end of time will be defeated. Similarly, God in the Psalms creates the world through a struggle with the primordial chaos.
He established the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never totter.
You made the deep cover it as a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
They fled at Your blast,
rushed away at the sound of Your thunder —mountains rising, valleys sinking—
to the place You established for them.
You set bounds they must not pass
so that they never again cover the earth. (104:6-9)
Here, God does not simply create seas, skies and dry land. God is subduing the chaos, setting limits, and in some texts even battles with prehistoric monsters like Leviathan and Rahab, creatures personifying the depths and chaos (see e.g., Psalm 74). The biblical scholar Jon D. Levenson remarks that these texts point to the ‘painful and yawning gap between the liturgical affirmation of God’s absolute sovereignty and the empirical reality of evil triumphant and unchecked’.
Whether chaotic evil comes from the depths of the human heart (the rabbis) or is sewn into the fabric of reality itself (some Biblical texts), the teaching is the same. As people who affirm life, we cannot allow these subversive agents of chaos and death to reign unchecked. Like God, we must keep these demonic forces at bay. We must fight, we must stand up for truth, we must stand up for life like God. In the wanton murder of thousands of fellow Jews, not only has the body politic of Israel been violated, but the Divine image of every human being. Hamas did not merely kill Jews; they violated the very definition of what it means to be human.
Perhaps people think this is a “Jewish” or “Israeli” issue. It is not, although it is that as well. This is a battle between life and death, between justice and evil, between order and chaos. This shabbat please unite with Jews and people of good conscious around the world. We shall prevail.
Even for those not on the front line of battle, each of us have the opportunity to increase light. We can be encouraged that suddenly, after a time of great division among our people, we have come together like never before. In the past week we have seen great darkness, but also great love and care and support and concern and pride like never before. Each Neshama, each Jewish soul, is a spark of the Divine light. When those Divine sparks are united together they become an intense light, illuminating all the dark places. This is part of the strategy to defeat Hamas. We need to not only defeat them militarily, but also the ideology that feeds such hatred. To do this, we need to be sources of light and kindness like never before. This Shabbat, even with all the darkness we feel, we need to also draw strength from the spirit of the Jewish people glowing stronger than ever before.
This is the first shabbat of the year, the beginning. To where this is the beginning leads remains unclear, but God gives us a way forward. “Let there be light”.
 My translation and adaption. There are various translations of the verse, but like the exegete Shadal and others, I am convinced that Ruach Elokim does not mean a spirit of wind of God, but a powerful wind.
 The imagery here is reflective of the Ancient Near East conception of the universe, with waters both underneath and above a solid ‘firmament’. The Hebrew shamaim (heavens) is reflective of this fact, as it is a conjunction of the words sham mayim – there is water there.
 Civilization and its Discontents
 See the massive multivolume work Toledot HaEmunah HaYisraelit) The Religion of Israel, from Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile (1960) Translated and abridged by Moshe Greenberg under the same name (1972). Modern scholarship questions many of his assumptions.
 The Hebrew term for death, mavet, is the cognate for the Ugaritic Mwt, which is the God of the underworld, a God in active struggle with Baal, the Canaanite God of life and fertility. See Neil Gillman, The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought (Jewish Lights: USA, 1997), p. 49
 Quoted in Gillman, p. 49
 To be absolutely clear, even in war there are norms and laws. The way we fight must reflect the values we profess, even in situations where our enemies do not. The IDF has always tried to embody this value, often in the most difficult of circumstances.