This week’s Torah portion is B’reishit, Genesis 1:1-6:6.
As long as man exists, the origins of the universes, and the origin of man will be contemplated. We read in Shir ha Shirim 2:12 (Song of Songs) of the perennial nature of renewal “… the flowers appear on the earth.” This is the harbinger of spring.
In wisdom, the rabbis have taught that the Torah is not a perennial, rather it is eternal. This is echoed in the blessing, “… and eternal life, Thou has planted within us.” This is a clear reference to the eternal teaching of God when we bless the Torah and its reading.
We begin our cycle of reading Torah once again, like a beautiful work of music which we yearn to hear over and over.
Genesis contains the creation of the world through the seventh day, Shabbat; the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Gan Eden.
Following this, the Torah wastes little time in introducing the human condition — Abel yearning to excel in his appreciation of God is the subject of his jealous brother’s anger, who then murders Abel and is given a trial by God and punished. This disturbing tale forces us to confront some difficult truths about the human condition, and it begins shaping us as mortals in need of moral development.
The image of the first page of the Sarajevo Haggadah came to mind. It has an illustration of the words that mean “and the earth was desolate and void …”). This may be the earliest known abstract painting of an idea in black and white in equal parts with a blue and white arch for the firmament. Next to this illustration, we see the waters in motion with the spirit of God, the sweeping wind descending upon the waters. The artist seems to have known the biblical text as well as the rabbinic commentary.
Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno says that this represents an amalgam of substance and form, yet he goes on to suggest that it existed in the imagination and contains four elements: earth, wind, fire and water. In addition to tohu vavohu, the combination of these was characterized by change and potential, including motion and time directed by God.
The Etz Hayyim commentary on the Torah (USCJ), notes that t’hom (the deep) is related to the goddess Tiamat in the Babylonian creation story. In this, we read, “Water was without form and was the prelude to transforming chaos into order.”
On a personal note, many a morning I awaken with a new understanding of tohu vavohu, void and without form; nevertheless, as the day progresses, I sing to myself the music of the Franz Joseph Haydn “Creation, A Newly Created World.” I also see the images of the Sarajevo Haggadah masterpiece, and that chaos was transformed into life, and I remember to praise the Creator.
For parents and educators:
Ask your students to paint or draw their own interpretation of tohu vavohu, and their interpretation of creation. For many years, we had beautiful paintings that our sons made of the creation story. The world of children is not filled with difficult news, but with optimism, seeing the beauty of nature, all of creation, the cosmos, God and a sunny day.
Ask this: Why did God do this? What motived God to create? In what anthropomorphic way does our tradition understand God and creation?
And this: In what manner or way are we God’s partners?
Which prayers acknowledge creation every day and on Shabbat and festivals?
May this be a year of study, new insight and revelation as we study together the eternal gift we have been given.
Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is the rabbi of Hevrat Shalom Congregation, Beit Chaverim of Calvert County and Shaare Shalom of Waldorf.