Gershon Hepner

Creativity Can Harmonize What Seems to be Tohu va’Bohu

“Writing is a most important bulwark against chaos,”

Oliver Sacks explained once in an interview.   We come to know who

we are from facts whose inexplicabilities dismay us,

transformed by dissonance that’s cognitive to tohu va’bohu,

a term applied by Jeremiah to a world devoid

of people, metaphorically describing what makes little sense,

unless imagination is by intellects employed

to sunny-gore the category that is its qategor, intelligence.

The last line of this poem alludes to two Hebrew words that have Greek roots, sanegor  meaning advocate,  and qategor meaning prosecutor.

The expression tohu va’bohu first appears in the Bible in its second verse, in Gen. 1:2:

ב  וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם.         2 Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.

Lisbeth Fried points out in an article in, “The Genesis of Creation,” that the term tohu va’bohu  in Gen. 1:2, which the KJV translates as “waste and void” denotes an absence of population, as in Jer. 4:23. which describes  the absence of Judeans in Judea, indicated 60 verses later by the words  רָאִיתִי, וְהִנֵּה אֵין הָאָדָם. I beheld, and, lo, there was no man. Here is the text f Je. 4:23-26 which make this point:

כג  רָאִיתִי, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְהִנֵּה-תֹהוּ, וָבֹהוּ; וְאֶל-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵין אוֹרָם.            23 I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was waste and void; and the heavens, and they had no light.

כד  רָאִיתִי, הֶהָרִים, וְהִנֵּה, רֹעֲשִׁים; וְכָל-הַגְּבָעוֹת, הִתְקַלְקָלוּ.       24 I beheld the mountains, and, lo, they trembled, and all the hills moved to and fro.

כה  רָאִיתִי, וְהִנֵּה אֵין הָאָדָם; וְכָל-עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, נָדָדוּ.     25 I beheld, and, lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens were fled.

כו  רָאִיתִי, וְהִנֵּה הַכַּרְמֶל הַמִּדְבָּר; וְכָל-עָרָיו, נִתְּצוּ מִפְּנֵי יְהוָה–מִפְּנֵי, חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ.  {ס}           26 I beheld, and, lo, the fruitful field was a wilderness, and all the cities thereof were broken down at the presence of the LORD, and before His fierce anger. {S}

The expression tohu va’bohu in Gen. 1:2 therefore signifies the absence of man when God created the universe.   Interestingly, this absence of man is similarly emphasized at the beginning of the second creation narrative (Gen. 2:5).

ה  וְכֹל שִׂיחַ הַשָּׂדֶה, טֶרֶם יִהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ, וְכָל-עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה, טֶרֶם יִצְמָח:  כִּי לֹא הִמְטִיר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, עַל-הָאָרֶץ, וְאָדָם אַיִן, לַעֲבֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה.        5 No shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground;

ו  וְאֵד, יַעֲלֶה מִן-הָאָרֶץ, וְהִשְׁקָה, אֶת-כָּל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.    6 but there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.

Interestingly Rashi states that the water that accompanies the absence of man comes from הַתְּהוֹם, the depth.

ואד יעלה. לְעִנְיַן בְּרִיאָתוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם, הֶעֱלָה הַתְּהוֹם וְהִשְׁקָה עֲנָנִים לִשְׁרוֹת הֶעָפָר וְנִבְרָא אָדָם, כְּגַבָּל זֶה, שֶׁנּוֹתֵן מַיִם וְאַחַ”כַּ לָשׁ אֶת הָעִסָּה, אַף כָּאן, וְהִשְׁקָה, וְאַחַ”כַּ וַיִּיצֶר:

ואד יעלה AND A MIST WENT UP — This has reference to the creation of Adam: viz., He caused the deep to rise and filled the clouds with water to moisten the dust, and man was created. It is like a kneader of bread who first pours in water and afterwards kneads the dough — similarly here: He first watered the ground and afterwards He formed man (Genesis Rabbah 14:1).

The depth that Rashi says is the source of the primeval water is the same one that is associated with the absence of man in Gen. 1:2, when we are told וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם,  and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waste. Rashi’s comment links the absence of what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik called Adam Two to the absence of what he called Adam One.  The link Rashi finds is as profound as the depth from which the primeval water came.

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at
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