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Tohu and Bohu: Chaotic Confusion

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

The narration representing the creation of the universe leads the reader, I think, from the nothingness that precedes moment of Divine speech, “Let there be light,” through the gradual separation and simplification of created matter. While in the first verse of Genesis God is presented as creating the heavens and the earth, and in the second verse that very earth is mysteriously defined as “formless and void,” darkness covers the surface of the abyss, and the “Spirit of God” hovers over the “surface of the waters.” I would like to focus on the two words the Torah uses in order to represent the “earth” right after it has been created ex-nihilo (tohu va-vohu), and reconnect my interpretation to what I have always seen as Rashi’s obscure reading of the first words of the Torah:

“Bereshit”: Said Rabbi Isaac: Was it not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded? For what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because of [the verse] “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps. 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.

Despite the fact that this interpretation can be (and indeed has been) quite easily politicized or humiliated to a mere ideological statement providing a clear answer to the Middle Eastern messiness (a veritable tohu va-vohu…), I would like to use Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s understanding of chaos in order to propose a different perspective on matters of land, property, and the foundational bases of dogmatic positions. In a year of Shmita, in which the Torah calls us to leave the land to lie fallow and in which all agricultural activity is forbidden, we may allow ourselves to see how the land is objectively not a “thing” belonging to one people or another, but that it actually is the chaotic foundation for a more universal coexistence, the locus in which particularity and totality meet in a delicate and rather unstable equilibrium.
Upon being created, the land (ha-aretz) is unstable, confused – addressing the two terms tohu and bohu, Rashi points to two different perspectives:

astonishingly empty: Heb. תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ. The word תֹהוּ is an expression of astonishment and desolation, that a person wonders and is astonished at the emptiness therein. […] astonishingly empty: “Astordison” in Old French; [étourdissement in modern French], astonishment. בֹהוּ an expression of emptiness and desolation.

Rashi points to two opposed perspectives – that of a conscious reaction to the chaotic confusion, and that of the chaotic confusion itself. A state of astonishment, and the cause of that astonishment. The 19th century German Biblical interpreter, Samson Raphael Hirsch, used Rashi’s distinction and elaborated it into the modern terms of an unstable coexistence of the subjective and the objective.

“Tohu” is a state of total intermingling (ערבוביה גמורה) in which distinct objects (עצמים נבדלים) cannot perceive / conceive their uniqueness. “Bohu” indicates the state of being intermingled – as intolerable in and of itself, full of contradictions and congested by strife. We will thus define the difference between “tohu” and “bohu” as follows: “tohu” indicates the state of being mingled, as it subjectively influences our consciousness; whereas “bohu” indicates the objective state of being mingled, confusion as it is. We thus interpret “tohu va-vohu” as: vague and mixed, not clear and indistinct. It is thus necessary to conclude that “tohu va-vohu” is conceptually the exact opposite of “earth,” which points to the actual state of being of the earth. The earth produces all species of creatures, each species being unique in and of itself, every member of the species unique in its being – but initially the earth was nothing but hylic matter (חומר היולי), confused and unclear.

The opposition Rav Hirsch postulates on the basis of this interpretation is between the earth as it is after the six days of God’s creative work, and the earth as it was in its primeval form; a clear opposition between clarity and univocal truth, and the ever changing whirl of things, the confused state in which things are not unique but literally indistinguishable one from another. Earth (aretz) is, states Hirsch, “the foundation, absoluteness directed towards one point, a tendency / motion towards the complete uniqueness.” In a post-Creational cosmos, differences are clear-cut – they tend to be absolute, and they pull individuals towards a state of inherent distinction; in God’s created universe, the motion is towards a definitive caesura between the subjective and the objective, between the mind and nature. But within Chaos, that primeval mingling of “tohu” and “bohu,” in which strife, noise and change are all that happens, the subjective is blurred into the objective, and vice-versa.
So where are we in all this? And more important: why does Rashi interpret the first verse of the Torah, with which the Creation initiates and Chaos springs out of the nothingness of eternity, with an apparently decontextualized statement regarding the Land of Israel, its having been taken away from the seven tribes and given to the people of Israel? The earth belongs to God, as work of art belongs to its auctor; “He created it… and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.” One side of the coin in this passage defining what one might call the “Divine property principle,” is that the Land was given to the People of Israel by the Creator himself – so now it belongs to them. This, in my opinion, is that point of uniqueness and truth defined by Hirsch – a state in which foundational statements are constant, fixed, rooted. The other side of the coin is, though, that that very earth is actually always in a underlying, bubbling state of chaotic mingling, in which the subjective is a continuation of the objective – that earth cannot be raped by the property neither of this nor of that people, just like the feminine characters in Ovid’s Metamorphoses change shape upon being threatened by the lascivious, masculine need to possess, to know, to define as “mine!” It seems to me, therefore, that the Land cannot inherently be possessed by the People – it can be used as a framework within which to serve God, to implement the praxis handed over to them by the Creator, and to inspire the world with rectitude and sanctity. It may be an important lesson for us to learn and remember in this year of shmita: for, as I learned from my teacher and friend Pinchas Leiser last week, there is a social lesson to be learned from the prohibition to work the land on the seventh year. We are not possessors of the land – we work the land, we are allowed to use it, but once every seven years we are granted the chance to learn some humility, in a state of consciousness that is less absolute, less foundational, less characterized by distinctions, and rather closer to the blurred indefiniteness of that chaotic, primeval matter.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University