a d’varling for Shabbat Bereshit
In the beginning, or in a beginning, or as God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth, everything was תוהו ובוהו / tohu va-vohu / chaos and void, and the breath of God hovered like a mother bird over the face of the waters. And God said יהי אור / y’hi or / let there be light, and there was light…
Over the summer, my friend and colleague Rabbi Mike Moskowitz pointed out something I had never noticed about this verse. Before creation, there was already תוהו ובוהו / chaos. The first act of creation, יהי אור / let there be light is an act of gevurah, differentiating between light and darkness, between one thing and another. But before the beginning, before that act of distinction, chaos already was.
Here we are beginning again. Beginning a new year. Beginning a new Torah reading cycle. And I’m feeling a certain resonance with chaos right now. Maybe you are too.
There’s a certain scrambled feeling that comes with making it through the holiday season. We’ve just gone from Elul to Rosh Hashanah to the Ten Days of Teshuvah to Yom Kippur to Sukkot to Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah and whoosh, where did the last six weeks go, what day is it, who am I again? That one happens every year, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
There’s also a unique scrambled feeling arising for many of us this year in particular. There was the pandemic, obviously, and then last spring as vaccines became available we thought we were coming out on the other side. Now, for reasons I don’t need to belabor, it’s increasingly clear that we’re once again in the thick of it and it is absolutely not over yet. There was the election, and then there was January 6, and then maybe we thought we were coming out on the other side. Now, for reasons I don’t need to belabor, it’s increasingly clear that we’re still in the thick of it and it is absolutely not over yet.
תוהו ובוהו: a mess, empty and upside-down, “in a chaotic state.” Does that feel to you like it describes the reality of the last year? Yeah, me too. And we’re not alone. My colleague Rabbi Michael Latz, in Minneapolis, calls this last year “immense tohu va-vohu.” Not just chaos, but immense chaos. Sounds about right.
How do we begin again from this place?
I think this morning’s Torah verses offer a blueprint. Yes, everything is chaos. So what does God do? God draws a boundary. And God speaks light into being.
New beginnings take gevurah. They always have, ever since The Beginning.
What boundary do we need to draw between the chaos that threatens to overwhelm us, and the new beginning that we’re called to create? What boundary do we need to draw between ourselves and the relentless bad news and drumbeat of news coverage? (Here’s a thought: how can keeping Shabbat help us draw that boundary?) What boundary do we need to draw around behaviors — our own behaviors that maybe don’t serve us well going forward, or the behaviors that we as individuals and as a community deem unacceptable?
Without a boundary, without gevurah, everything is s תוהו ובוהו / chaos.
And then what light can we speak into being? Every morning we bless God Who speaks the world into being. Our sages point out that we who are made in the Divine image and likeness can also speak worlds into being. Okay, I can’t say “let there be coffee” and cause the coffee to manifest in my hand like Janet from The Good Place. But our words shape realities. Our words impact other people. Our words impact our own internal landscape, too. We can choose to use our words to bring light and uplift and hope, or to perpetuate chaos and falsehood and despair.
This week we begin again. The world begins again. Our story begins again. May we begin the new year the way God begins creation: with gevurah, and with words chosen to bring light into dark places and uplift to counter despair. As my friend and colleague R. Mark Asher Goodman writes,
God made meaning out of the chaos — something beautiful and wonderful — and we who are created in the image of God can do the same.
Kein yehi ratzon, may it be so.
This is the d’varling I offered at Shabbat morning services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)