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October 15, 2020
27 Tishrei 5781


Dear Friends,

Tohu wa-bohu or Tohu va-Vohu (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ) describe the state of the universe at the very beginning. The King James Bible translates the phrase as “without form and void" while the JPS Tanakh translates it similarly as “unformed and void." In another scholarly pairing, Everett Fox translates it as “when the earth was wild and waste” while Robert Alter’s recent translation continues along the same lines with “the earth then was welter and waste." Tohu on its own means emptiness or futility. This phrase appears elsewhere, but only in reference to the original in Genesis.

Why focus on this phrase that appears within the very first sentence of our Torah? The alliteration has always caught my attention. I invite you to say it out loud and allow yourself to go with the feeling that it evokes. For me it has always evoked a sense of messiness, of untidiness in the most chaotic manner. It evokes an image of things swirling around in a random manner. 

In order to make a little more sense of all of this chaos, here is the full first sentence of Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis:

“When God began to create heaven and earth and the earth was then welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, 'Let there be light.'"

In coming to the beginning this year with all that is going on in the world on every level, this first sentence of the Torah gives me hope. We are living through a chaotic period in our world. It is a time of Tohu va-Vohu and, just as it was in the very beginning, the possibility for moving out of this place of chaos is with us.

As we go through the days of creation, we are reminded that we have responsibility to this world and to all who live within it, so that we never go back to that moment where absolutely everything was swirling around. Light changed it from chaos to a world where life was possible.

Every week when we celebrate Shabbat, we pay tribute to that process of going from darkness covering the deep to a place of light as we light the Shabbat candles. As we light candles in the darkness, their true power is revealed as a source of hope.

Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn                              

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