Consider and Converse: A Guide to Tohu VaVohu

Image by Artwork by Image by David Wander
Image by Artwork by Image by David Wander

Consider and Converse: A Guide to Tohu vaVohu / chaos & creation


Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the core of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the Jewish sensibility of “tohu vaVohu/chaos & creation.” Drawing on the second verse of the Torah — “the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface…” (Genesis 1:2) — this month’s issue examines the nature of “chaos” and how it plays out today. In recent years, chaos and disruption have come to be known as instrumental to innovation and creative activity. We also know that chaos can be horrific. The writers explore several fundamental questions: What role does chaos play today—spiritually and politically? What was the “unformed” before Creation? What is the relationship of creating distinctions and holiness?

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth in your discovery of ideas and questions independently or with others, formally and informally.

How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal can be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at

Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Melila Hellner-Eshed, a scholar of Jewish mysticism and Zohar, opens up the issue with some of her favorite texts and stories about Creation. “Reading into these traditions, I find an inspiring insight very relevant to our contemporary world. The transition from unsustainable tohu to the firmly established world, is only possible when we learn to celebrate difference and otherness, while also affirming complementary wholeness.” She goes on to compare God’s creation as a work in progress, “…raw, chaotic, unripe, or imperfect, but nonetheless, unformed potentiality and aborted efforts to create something from nothing. Judaism, then, teaches us to respect and love our in-progress and early works of art, thought, imagination, and love.” Melila suggests we not fear chaos and the unknown or unknowable, but rather be kind to ourselves and that chaos. How might that kindness manifest in approaching the awe of a new Jewish year — filled with majestic liturgy and drama that is often beyond our comprehension? Melila suggests that there exists a continuous evolution of nothingness becoming somethingness. How does that concept work in the world?
  • Julian Zelizer, journalist and co-host of the podcast, Politics and Polls, writes that President Donald Trump understands how chaos works in his favor and brings him success. He uses chaos to destabilize his opponents, to distract from distressing headlines, and to avoid accountability. After exploring this use of chaos, Julian writes that the “2020 election will be the biggest test for how chaos works in presidential politics. Should President Trump win a second term, the outcome would legitimate chaos as a style of political leadership.” How do you understand President Trump’s political savvy in regards to chaos? Is the use of chaos an outgrowth of the technology sector’s anthem of disruption? What is the relationship between disruption and creativity?

  • Rabbi Steven Exler, rabbi of the Bayit at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an open Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx, brings to life the voices of our rabbinic sages. He writes, “Through the lens of its interpreters, Genesis 1:2 emerges as a mirror for what we might want the beginning of creation to be about: God’s power; the weight of human choices; the existence of other-worldly physical and emotional states that live with us from the first moments of the world until today.” We are left to wonder about several things: First, “once creation occurs, what becomes of nothingness?” What was that “void” before there was something? What do we learn about the moment of Creation that informs our choices today — about God’s power to create and destroy as well as our own power to create and destroy? How do awe, amazement, and curiosity play into your understanding of Creation? And how do these attributes function in your life today?

Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • Rabbinit Leah Sarna writes about the holiness and distinction of God’s Creation and how that plays out today. “The original Rosh Hashanah, that very first one on the sixth day of creation when God created humankind, was also God’s first day as King. Creation, as described in the Torah, is a series of cosmic orderings. Before God’s first creative utterance, there was chaos, tohu v’vohu. And then there was light, separated from darkness. Creation is a turn from chaos toward differentiation. The culmination of creation, the most orderly piece of it all, was to be the human.” She goes on to question whether some of those distinctions seem arbitrary: “Our brains love to draw hard distinctions but we know that many of those distinctions are false. Solids and liquids seem so very different — but life experience or rudimentary chemistry will teach us that it is only heat that divides them. Male and female sexes seem vastly different; that distinction is but one chromosome. Countries seem so different one from another, but we know that those lines are arbitrary and have changed dramatically over time.” And she concludes, “As subjects of the King of Kings, on Rosh Hashana we dedicate ourselves to promoting God’s vision of order above our own.” How do you understand God’s plan and how do you relate to it? What is the relationship between orderliness and distinction, and a sense of holiness/kedushah? How are we humans tasked today with understanding and having agency around the blurriness of distinctions?
  • In NiSh’ma,, our simulated Talmud page, three commentators examine the second line in Genesis: “The earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water.” (1:2) We begin with Rabbi Andy Bachman writing about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Andy writes, “the Whale, trolls deeply our untamed, elusive, wildly creative unconscious mind.” He goes on to say, “Just as Melville’s generation reckoned with slavery and Civil War, our own is facing the ongoing scourge of racism, income inequality, and global warming.” He says that creating and making order from chaos is the work of every generation. Rabbi Adina Lewittes and writer and dancer Hadar Cohen respond to Andy’s commentary. How have destruction and chaos shaped you and marked your path? What are the specific challenges of chaos today, for this generation of American Jews? What role will Jewish values and sensibilities play in responding to that chaos?

Consider and Converse: A Guide to Tohu VaVohu

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