Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise, on Shabbat 27th Tishrei 5776, 10th October 2015
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
These two sentences reverberate with us since our childhood, yet the message they contain, beyond the fact of creation, is enlightening in modern terms. According to Prof. Miriam Faust, Rector of Bar Ilan University and a cognitive psychologist, a prerequisite for creation to occur in almost any sphere, is a state of tohu vavohu – the chaos, confusion, shapelessness and void that we read about here.
Today we call it thinking “outside the box”, where the box represents our generally codified and sometimes fossilized ways of thinking. And here’s an ironic paradox. To reach the level of expert in a given field where we can innovate and create new things, we need great knowledge and experience, yet often, this knowledge and experience addles our ability or desire to see where or how to introduce changes.
Yet the box has its uses. It helps to maintain norms of behavior that make a civilized community possible. If we take today’s story of creation at face value, many of the actions presented in our parsha are outside the box because no box has yet been established. There is no “usual” or “accepted” way of doing things because no one has done them before. What happens to Adam and Eve, the first persons on earth, shapes the boxes of the future.
The story of the forbidden fruit is an example of how experience and a box could perhaps have guided our primary progenitors. Eve has not learned certain basic tenets. Don’t accept candy from strangers, dares from shady characters, or suave reasoning from wily characters. Adam hasn’t learned that your wife is always right (even when she isn’t) and that you have to guide her through the intricacies of negotiations, if you know them.
Neither one of them has learned that someone (God) telling you not to do something is not permission to do that thing. Of course, children to this day believe this to the way of the world, as do many adults.
We see that Adam has not internalized the omnipresence and omniscience of God. He also doesn’t know how to lie very well, a skill which has been improved upon considerably over the millennia, especially by politicians.
We can also say that sibling relations, such as those between Cain and Abel, could have used a box to circumscribe what is permitted and forbidden. Like murder. The first time an argument springs up – bang bang you’re dead! Of course, to judge by the news we consume daily, in many places in this world, including Israel, this approach to disagreement has not changed very much in the intervening millennia. Only the means.
So to summarize, cognitive chaos and a refusal to accept the dictates of “experts” often precedes change, with concomitant new ideas, new medicines, new approaches and solutions to old problems. At the same time, having a box, a ritualized, accepted way of behaving and dealing with specific issues, is sometimes essential for maintaining social order and civility.
Which leaves us with the conclusion of the parsha. God regrets having made mankind and simply wants to be rid of us. This presents the double problem of a box or lack of box, and the theological thorn of an omniscient God regretting something. Of course, the easiest way to resolve this problem is to say that the Torah uses human terminology to enable us to comprehend the incomprehensible.
But there is another explanation. It’s not a matter of God saying, I made a mistake. Rather we, humankind, have changed the specifications and the rules of the game. Humankind had become so irrevocably bad that the original conditions surrounding their creation had been altered. (Of course we could say that God, being omniscient, should have known this would happen, but let’s not be petty.)
This explanation of “regretting” is best illustrated in the Book of Samuel. God regrets that he had Saul anointed king. Why? Because Saul is not the same Saul as when he was anointed. His freely chosen actions are a disappointment and it is this lack of living up to expectations that dissatisfies God.
In Bereshit, the parsha ends with another form of chaos, tohu vavohu, this time caused by bad behaviors which cry out for change. The change in this case is complete destruction – again, an approach that does not seem constricted by any box or rules or regulations.
But there is one sliver of hope. And Noah found favor in the eyes of God – there was one righteous person who deserved to live. This signals an evolving modus operandi for dealing with perversion: destruction but within limits.
We will see this in Sodom and Gomorrah, and later in God’s constant threats to demolish the Israelites in the desert after each violation of God’s instructions (like the brawler who says, “Let me at him – hold me back – let me at him – hold me back!”)
Whether we take these stories as absolute truth, which is difficult, or as a stylized explanation for the early processes that led to today’s topography, geomorphology, flora and fauna, there are lessons to be learned about how to behave and how not to behave.
We all have our boxes of stylized behaviors and reactions and beliefs, and we certainly have enough tohu vavohu in our society, country, region – and indeed in the world – to suggest that a great change must eventually come about that resolves some of our most grievous issues.
The question is whether we are dealing with millennia or decades or years or months or days. Let’s us hope that whatever changes emerge from this tohu vavohu serve us and help us to help ourselves and the world.