Jack Nahmod

From Tohu va’Vohu to Ohr

Here and not here. So many of us feel here and not here. Functioning and broken. In profound pain and numb. And in this confused state, I hear echoes of our world at its Genesis, In the Beginning, Bereishit: “the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the unformed / וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם.” (Gen. 1:2) To some, like Bechor Shor, this means “that when the world was created in the beginning it was desolate and empty / כשהיתה נבראת הארץ, בתחלה היתה שממה וריקנית.” When the verse continues, however, we see that there is water: “and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water / וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם,” so it does not seem that emptiness is the best interpretation of “tohu va’vohu.” Better, I think, is the understanding of Seforno, that it was “a mixture of raw materials / דבר מורכב מחמר ראשון,” which Rabeinu Bachya describes as that “which had not yet been properly defined and therefore could not yet be named / הוא החמר שאין בו ממש ואין השם נתפס בו.” And this, it feels to me, is our emotional state right now: tohu va’vohu.

Thankfully, though, as I already mentioned, this is not where the verse ends, as it then says: “and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water / וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם.” According to this, what is the relationship between God and chaos in the world, in ourselves? Is God separate from it or in it with us? Chizkuni offers a not so reassuring interpretation: tohu va’vohu “is not said with regard to the heavens out of respect for the shechinah that dwells in them / לא נאמר לשון זה גבי שמים אלא מפני כבוד שכינה ששורה בהם.” But, he notes, “according to the Talmud, the meaning here is that the heavens also were created with the tohu va’vohu /  ולפי סברת התלמוד משמע שגם הם תהו ובהו נבראו.” As the Talmud teaches: “Rav Yehuda said in Rav’s name: “Ten things were created on the first day, and they are: heaven and earth; tohu va’vohu, light and darkness; wind and water; the length of day and the length of night / וְאָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר רַב: עֲשָׂרָה דְּבָרִים נִבְרְאוּ בְּיוֹם רִאשׁוֹן, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן: שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ, תֹּהוּ וָבֹהוּ, אוֹר וָחֹשֶׁךְ, רוּחַ וּמַיִם, מִדַּת יוֹם וּמִדַּת לַיְלָה.” (Bavli Chag. 12a) In other words: God was then, and is now, alongside us in our state of tohu va’vohu.

Is there a way out? Bereishit signals hope that there is. First, with that water God is hovering over. Water represents life, “mayim chayim / מַיִם חַיִּים,” as we read over and over again in Tanach, starting with Yitzchak when he digs his wells. (Gen. 26:19) It is a source of sustenance and also a purifying force. And then an even more dramatic sign of hope: light. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light / וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִי־א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר.” (Ex. 1:3) The question is asked: why not start the world with light, why create it? Explains the Kli Yakar: “the verse informs us that if at any future time it should happen that, through the actions of the wicked, the world will go back to being chaos, it should not be considered a change in the creation; but rather the world will go back to how it was, since it is its nature to be chaos and void and darkness. And through the actions of the righteous, the Holy Blessed One overturned its nature and created light for the righteous / והודיע לנו הכתוב שאם יקרה בזמן מן הזמנים שע״י מעשה הרשעים יחזור העולם לתהו לא יהיה נחשב שינוי בבריאה אלא יחזור העולם לכמות שהיה כי מטבעו להיות תהו ובהו וחשך, וע״י מעשה הצדיקים עשה הקב״ה הפך טבעו וברא האור לצדיקים.”

Today, this week, there has been much darkness. The world, however, has not lost – never loses – its potential for light, even when it feels, as it does now, that the world has shifted beneath our feet, that it is fundamentally changed. There is of course so much pain even among signs of hope. A midrash teaches that “everything that has been created in the world is also in every person…, and there are rivers in people just like the world’s rivers: tears / ויצר באדם כל מה שברא בעולמו…נחלים בעולם נחלים באדם: אלו דמעות.” (Avot DeRabi Natan 31) Even alongside that pain, and with those tears, may we again soon see, for our sake as a people and a nation – as well as the world’s – the light of the righteous, a light stronger than any we have ever seen before, illuminating the world anew.

About the Author
Rabbi Jack Nahmod is a middle school administrator at a school in Manhattan. He has a Masters Degree in Jewish Studies and is also an attorney.
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