Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
“In the beginning, God created heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void …” [Gen. 1:1-2]
The creation story begins with two things: God and an unformed, chaotic universe. Eerily, this ancient story partially aligns with modern science. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (“entropy increases”), the unformed void (tohu va’vohu in Hebrew) is the natural state of the universe: order gives way to disorder. However, in Genesis, God brings order from disorder through the Creative process.
On a smaller level, Torah does the same for us. Torah begins with tohu va’vohu, but the very last word at the end of Deuteronomy is “Israel.” Our story of becoming begins with Genesis, where we too are ‘unformed’ and ends with the people Israel, as we stand on the banks of the Promised Land.
Each year, perhaps because we are still in the act of becoming, we rinse and repeat – we finish the Torah and start all over again.
Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman tells a story about the Rebbe Chaim Brisker. Apparently, it happened one morning at the crack of dawn on the day before Simchat Torah, our annual celebration of completing and re-starting the annual Torah cycle. One of the rebbe’s most diligent students had spent a sleepless night agitating over the coming holiday. Before even the sun rose, there he was in front of his rebbe’s house, pacing nervously back and forth on the cobblestone street. Clickety-clack, clickety clack went his shoes with each and every step. Eventually, the sound woke the Brisker Rebbe, who poked his head out of the window to find his student below. He put on his robe and went downstairs to see what had brought his student to his house so early in the morning. When he opened the door the student’s face lit up, and then fell into a deep frown. “Good morning,” said the rabbi. “Good morning Rebbe,” replied the student, “But I couldn’t sleep, not even a wink …” “Well what is it?” asked the rebbe, placing a compassionate hand on the student’s shoulder. “Rebbe … it’s the Torah!” To put it mildly, the rebbe was somewhat surprised! The student continued, “I’ve studied each year, every week, every parashah. I’ve read through the commentaries, listened to the rabbis, and tried to understand. But we are coming to the end of another Torah cycle, and I’m not sure I know much more than I did last year, or even the year before that … Rebbe, I’ve gone through the Torah ten times and more, I’ve gone through it over and over again, so why don’t I understand?” Rebbe Chaim smiled sweetly, explaining: “My student, it’s not how many times you’ve gone through the Torah, but how much of the Torah has gone through you.”
Every year we cycle back to this moment. We have celebrated the New Year on Rosh HaShanah and considered our mistakes on Yom Kippur, we have celebrated in our Sukkas, recognizing that we are still wandering towards the Land of Promise. And now, we are at the beginning, again. “Bereishit bara Elohim et HaShayim v’et Ha’aretz. V’ha’aretz haita tohu va’vohu – In the beginning, God created heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void …” [Gen. 1:1-2]
We may have become Israel, at least in part, but there is still too much tohu va’vohu in the land, and in our lives. The Promise is not yet fulfilled. So, we begin again, as we always do with the hope that not only will go through more Torah, but that more Torah will go through us, will lift us up, form us and help us bring order from the chaos.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras