Torah begins, “When God began creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ / tohu va-vohu” – chaos and unformed, scrambled and unpredictable. (Gen. 1-2) In the beginning, there was chaos. Tohu va-vohu was the original state of the universe. It's a law of thermodynamics: entropy is always already with us. Chaos pre-existed creation.
Surely chaos preceded the formation of the modern State of Israel. In the years before 1948 our world experienced profound upheaval and destruction. The hope encoded in the modern state of Israel was planted in spiritual soil laced with the shrapnel of our broken hearts after the deaths of the six million. Could we have imagined, in 1948, the particular grief of right now?
This week we have re-learned some things about chaos and broken hearts. I have no words for the horror of what we’ve witnessed from afar… and I know this pales in comparison with what our beloveds there are going through. I think of when Aaron’s sons die unexpectedly and Torah says simply that he is silent (Lev. 10:3). Sometimes our sorrow is beyond all words.
There is unspeakable sorrow also in this week’s Torah portion. In Bereshit we read about Cain and Abel, the first siblings, born to Adam and Chava. One brother brings produce to God, the other brings animals, and God looks with favor on only one of their offerings. We might wonder why God's favor seems here to be zero-sum, but Torah doesn't answer that question.
Torah just tells us that the face of Cain, the farmer, has fallen. And God says, "Why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift." (Genesis 4:7) But Cain doesn't do right. He slays his brother in the field, and when God asks about Abel, Cain retorts, "Am I my brother's keeper?" And God replies, “your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” (Gen 4:10)
I keep thinking about the grief Adam and Chava must have felt – and the grief God must have felt, too. Torah seems aware from the very beginning that human beings are capable of unthinkable harm. Indeed, there's midrash that says at least some of the angels tried to talk God out of creating humanity, arguing that humans would be violent and terrible.
Truth and Peace say: don’t do it, God, humanity’s going to trample the values we stand for. Justice and Compassion say: no, God, create humanity, they’ll act with mercy and justice! Of course, we know that God creates humanity, because here we are. Our mystics say that’s because God yearns for relationship with us. God yearns for us to live up to who we can be.
Chaos is at the very beginning of the cosmic story, and bloodshed is at the beginning of the human one. In this sense Torah feels very realistic. It’s a funny word to use for a seven-day creation story that midrash populates with angels! But Torah has no illusions about who and what human beings are. This is what we have to work with. Torah begins with chaos.
And then: יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר / Yehi or, says God: "let there be light," and there is light. And God sees that the light is good. (Gen. 1:3-4) Torah isn't talking about sunlight. We know this because God creates light before creating the heavenly bodies that illumine our sky. This light is something else. This is what our mystics call the primordial light, the light of creation itself.
The primordial light shines in the darkness not of space but of spirit. And when God declares it good, God is saying that there is capacity for good in this world. God is saying that we can choose to create, not just to destroy. Our Shabbat candles shine with the glow of that primordial light. Shabbat comes each week to remind us that tohu va-vohu is only the beginning.
Shabbat is supposed to be a holy time out of our ordinary existence. But I am here tonight to say to you: if we need to grieve, then Shabbat can hold our grief. If we need to pour out our hearts at the pain and horror of it all, then we can. God can take it. And I promise that even if we feel our hearts are shattered altogether, I know that in time healing will come.
Cain asks God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" We learned at Kol Nidre that kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh -- all of Israel is responsible for one another. We're mixed up in one another. We're part of one another. It's why when others are harmed, we feel the hurt. And I wouldn't want to be any other way. Even if that means worrying and crying and grieving from afar.
And I'm also here tonight to say to you: this week's Torah portion comes to remind us that we have agency. Chaos isn’t the end. On the contrary, it seems to be a necessary precursor to beginning. Even when darkness and chaos feel like all we have, this is where creation itself begins. Existential darkness gives way to light. It’s why a Jewish day begins with evening.
For R. Isaac Luria the story of creation begins with breaking. When God first began to create, he teaches, the vessels meant to hold God’s light shattered. Creation as we know it is full of shards, and also holy sparks. That was the original meaning of tikkun olam: lifting the broken shards to find the sparks of holiness, and lifting those sparks back up to their Source.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about these words from the Kotzker rebbe, as taught by Rabbi Alana Suskin: “The Torah says, ‘In the beginning, God created…’ God only created the beginning, and left the rest to humankind.” It’s up to us to figure out how to get from this beginning to something better. I believe that most people, in Israel and in Gaza, want better than this.
A friend recently mailed me a book by Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes, and I opened it one morning this week over breakfast. Immediately I had to pick up a pen to draw exclamation points in the margins. The sentence that drew me in was, “Hope and grief can coexist, and if we wish to transform the world, we must learn to hold both simultaneously.”
I don't have answers to the vast tragedies and traumas we've witnessed this week from afar. But the voices that resonate most for me this week are the ones saying: these two peoples can live in peace. Nobody's children should be killed. Out of this terrible mourning, we pray for a better path forward. A better world is possible.
May we remember that we are all each others’ keepers. May we extend ourselves with care to all who are suffering across that beloved land. Out of this chaos, may we find our way to creating light. In the words of the National Council of Jewish Women, this week we’ve seen the worst in humanity; may we respond by cultivating the best in humanity. And let us say – amen.
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- Jewish Federation of North America’s Emergency Fund - This fund is focused on making sure that the Jewish Agency’s Victims of Terror Fund can help victims’ families, and will also help the Israel Trauma Coalition and Joint Distribution Committee provide food, shelter, and trauma care.
This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)