If you were cast away on an island with just one Jewish text for company, which would you choose?
This week Catherine Lyons of Edinburgh Liberal Jewish Community selects: the second verse of Bereishit
Every Simchat Torah, I am transfixed, not by the first verse of Bereishit, but by the second. My imagination runs wild. Customarily, we think of God’s first creative act as ‘Let there be light’. Before that, ‘the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the wind of God swept over the waters’.
Tohu vavohu: the earth was all wibbly wobbly, soft and yielding.
Bland in its primeval state, it is readily absorbent, marinating in rabbinic flavours which, like family recipes, are closely defended and argued about. What was this primeval stuff that preceded Yom Echad, the First Day ever? Translations are freighted with polemic. I recoil from the commonly found ‘chaos and waste’.
The Tohu-vaVohu-Earth is brimming with possibility and promise.
Tehom: darkness was on the face of the Deep. Can you hear the silence stretching across the pitch-black ocean?
Listen carefully, as the breath of God ruffles the surface of the water, brooding our world into being.
Primeval Tehom: as close as Torah ever gets to the very Source. Tehom separates, to make sky. Tehom withdraws, to make land. Later it returns and floods the world. Later still, it liberates escaping slaves and drowns their overlords. That great surge of fathomless water is for Avivah Zornberg the Murmuring Deep, the Biblical Unconscious.
Deep calls to Deep, says the Psalmist. Ancient cosmologies proclaimed a god who conquered the primeval water and fashioned our world through mythic struggle. Atop an arid mountain, our earliest glimmerings of the Eternal One grew from ancient awe. But before the Beginning – our Beginning – the Eternal One made Tehom.
Tehom takes us beyond Bereishit. Dive in deep.