God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:4)
The first five verses of Torah (Genesis 1:1-5) tell us that before God began creating the heavens and the earth, the world was tohu vavohu – a seething and chaotic void in which all was gloom and shadows. But then the spirit of God swept over the chaos and changed it. God’s first act of creation was to generate light, but that light was still part of the void, and overshadowed by it. Seeing that the light was good, God separated it from the chaos, and in so doing created the first day.
I’ve often wondered how our ancestors came to see the creation of the world in such a manner. Unlike the creation myths of many other ancient peoples, ours does not include warring gods and violent beginnings. Instead, we have chaos, divine words and then light. As most of us know, chaos and shadows can be terrifying; I imagine they were for our ancestors as well.
In many ways, the types of chaos our biblical forebears experienced – and feared – are not so different from those we experience today. As demonstrated in the Flood Narrative (Genesis 6-9), our ancestors greatly feared environmental upheaval and catastrophe, just as we fear the implications of hurricanes like Harvey, Irma and Maria. Interestingly, Torah indicates that it was human immorality and wrongdoing that brought about the great flood. How different is that, really, from the anxiety we experience as the correlation between human misuses of the planet and the calamitous effects of climate change grow ever stronger?
The narrative in Judges 19, usually called “The Levites Concubine,” in which an innocent woman is raped and murdered at the hands of an unruly and murderous mob, shows our ancestors’ profound concern about unchecked violence. I think we need only look to the anxiety most of us experienced after the recent horrific event in Las Vegas to see that our fears are not that different.
But the question becomes: what do we do? To understand that we have fears similar to those of our ancestors is one thing; whether that knowledge is helpful is quite another.
In search of answers, I turn to one of our most distinguished modern Jewish philosophers – and my personal favorite – Emmanuel Levinas.
In his essay “Existence & Existents,” Levinas interprets the first verses of Torah not as a physical creation of the world, but as a moral genesis that transforms chaos into order. According to Levinas, God connects with the tohu vavohu in Genesis 1:4 by speaking and thereby transforms the chaotic void into light. Levinas sees this as a metaphor for human interaction, and suggests that we run the risk of sinking back into tohu vavohu when we neglect to see the humanity, suffering and divinity in those around us. Moving from the chaos of tohu vavohu to the light of human connection requires that we work to truly see those around us in all their own pain and suffering. I believe this applies to our relationship with our planet as well. For Levinas, it is this work that makes us truly human.
Living entails a certain amount of chaos. Whether it be personal or public, environmental or political, many of us will experience an uneasy sense of dark and shadowy tohu vavohu at some point. Levinas provides us a means of rising up out of the shadows into the light of creation – through connection. When we seek out and connect with others, in their pain, suffering and distress, we help create light out of darkness. When we work together and collaborate on the pressing issues before us – climate change and gun violence, to name only two – we help separate the light from the darkness in order to create – much like our genesis story – a new day. May 5778 be a year of connection and collaboration for us all. Shanah Tovah!
Rabbi Gavi S. Ruit is a recent arrival in the Providence area. The rabbinate is a second career; her previous background is as a developmental specialist working with adolescents. She was ordained by HUC-Los Angeles in 2015, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Medieval and Modern Jewish Thought at HUC-Cincinnati. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.