The following D'var Torah was delivered to the HUC-JIR Board of Overseer’s & during Student T’filah on Monday, September 23, 2013.
In the beginning, there were swirling masses of chaos that were, tohu vavohu
, unformed and void. On the first day, these swirling masses of chaos started intensives. And shortly thereafter, first classes. And shortly thereafter, Rosh Hashanah, where these HUC students, these swirling masses of chaos that were, tohu vavohu
, unformed and void, were able to pull themselves together and create beautiful moments for communities across the country.
For me, the story of Creation found in our parashah, Bereshit, is about God making order from chaos. In Bereshit, “v’ha’aretz haitah tohu vavohu v’choshech al-p’nei t’hom - the earth was a chaos, unformed and void, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness. Then God’s spirit glided over the face of the waters,” creating light and darkness, the sky and waters, earth and all its growing things, the sun and moon, animals, humans, and finally Shabbat - the quintessential ideal of moving from the chaos of the week to order.
Commentators throughout history have grappled with this concept, “tohu va’vohu.” Robert Alter notes that, “Tohu” by itself means “emptiness” like a desert. Richard Elliot Friedman adds that, “tohu va’vohu” mean virtually the same thing, but their connection “yields a picture of an undifferentiated, shapeless fluid that had existed prior to creation.” But God does not create from the ether; as Rashi and Everett Fox note, order is brought out of chaos, not creation from nothingness. So, too, it is with HUC - we, students, begin as swirling, chaotic masses that are empty, undifferentiated, shapeless fluid. And with the right teachers, mentors, and classmates, we are able to become more ordered, hopefully slightly less chaotic teachers, mentors, and spiritual leaders. We are shaped by bringing order out of chaos, we are not created from nothingness.
My story of moving from tohu vavohu to, for lack of better term, “more organized chaos” started at my Bar Mitzvah. Rabbi Jon Stein, a graduate of HUC’s New York campus, stood with me on the bimah at our congregation in San Diego and said, “Well, Jeremy, you have a choice: you can be a rabbi or a cantor.” I had never given HUC a thought, and in that moment, Rabbi Stein actually gave me a gift: he planted a seed. It was that day that my interest in my own religious development began to grow. That seed drove me towards NFTY, Hillel, camp, youth work, and eventually, naturally, to HUC.
When I arrived in Israel almost two and a half years ago, I was a perfect example of tohu vavohu. I had all of these experiences, and I was so ready to share them with my classmates. But then something funny happened: I heard my classmates’ stories. I heard their truths. I heard their paths. And I realized that this community that HUC has created has given me a chance to take a step back and really soak in the lessons from my other classmates. Every day, I am inspired by one classmate who attempts to understand the grammar of a text to create order from chaos. Every day, I am inspired by another classmate who begins each day reading and contributing ten-point gratitude lists in his community to find order from chaos. Every day, I am inspired by my classmates who push the t’filah envelope and step outside of their prayer comfort zone so that they may find their order from chaos. And every single day, I am inspired by teachers who instill a love of learning, even when the material is frustrating, seemingly arcane, and complex so that we, as students, may find order from chaos. Each of us works every day to create order from each situation of tohu vavohu.
In the beginning of the program, we often heard the words, “trust the process,” as a way of saying, “That’s a great point, and I know you’re concerned, but eventually, you will learn an order from this experience that seems tohu vavohu.” HUC has allowed me to make a journey from chaos to order. But it also has led to my growth, giving me and my classmates the tools to take on the next generation’s tohu vavohu and help them create their own order from chaos.
So as we begin again, as we sit in our shaky Sukkot, and as we continue to dream big for the coming year, we must challenge ourselves: How will I help make order from chaos? How will I be that Rabbi Stein to plant the seed of Jewish leadership in someone? How will my experiences help shape someone else’s order?
May this year be full of learning and growth and may we all as tohu vavohu, unformed and void, vessels find shalom, wholeness and order. Yir’eh Elohim, ki tov - God will see, and it will be good. Boke