Tohu vaVohu

This week’s Torah portion starts off with a most awe-inspiring statement: “In the beginning, when The Eternal began the heavens and the earth, the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep…” (Genesis 1:1-2).

Translating Hebrew into English can sometimes lead to an unsatisfactory rendering of the original text. This is often because there isn’t a direct translation of the more colorful phrases in the Hebrew Bible. “Tohu vaVohu (תהו ובהו)”  is a great example of such word play. Above, I use a translation which reads “unformed and void.”  But what does this really mean?

Let me start by saying that we don’t need to take Genesis literally in order to be inspired by the creation story therein. If we take some time to dig a little deeper than the surface of the text, we will find that there is so much we can glean from it.

Medieval French rabbi, Rashi, suggests in his commentary on Genesis 1:2 that the word tohu is used in combination with vohu (void, emptiness) because it “signifies astonishment and amazement, for a person would have been astonished and amazed at its emptiness.” 

There is no doubt in my mind that Rashi is correct in his assessment. Whenever I want to enter into a spiritual state of mindfulness about my place in the Universe, I need only look to the night sky. That said, our night sky is full of stars and galaxies. The night sky at the beginning of the Universe was formless and void. How much more astonishing would it have been to see such vast nothingness! Even more so when we remember that all in the Universe is related at the atomic level – we are all stardust.

In fact, it is wholly remarkable that we exist at all.  When one contemplates just how unlikely it is that we evolved from seeming nothingness to become conscious, breathing, living beings – it boggles all senses. And yet, we only get a short period of time to contemplate what meaning our lives have while here. As it says in the book of Ecclesiastes 3:20, “All goes to the same place; all comes from [star]dust, and to [star]dust all returns.”  To me, it is what we do with the time we have here and now that gives life its meaning.

The astronomer Carl Sagan once said of the Cosmos: ” Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”  

We aren’t apart from Nature, studying it and observing it. We are a part of Nature, living it and shaping it. When we step up into our roles as essential pieces of the Oneness of the Cosmos, we can begin our spiritual journeys toward greater wisdom, understanding, and knowledge that will lead us to peace. Only then will we appreciate the uniqueness of our birth out of tohu and vohu. 

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