In 2000, right after college, I joined 70 other newly-minted graduates on Project Otzma, a project run by the Jewish Federations of North America, to learn and volunteer throughout Israel. While I spent time living in places ranging from the Galilee to central Israel to Jerusalem, my year started in the Negev, learning Hebrew at the ulpan at Sapir College and living in an absorption center in a tiny town called Ibim (current population: 721). The nearest “city” to Ibim was a place none of us, including our family or friends, had ever heard of at the time – Sderot.
Over the twenty-plus years since I lived there, more people learned about it. At first it was for its growing music scene. But then, since it was right on the border of Gaza, it bore the brunt of thousands of Qassam rockets launched by Hamas. And as the world now knows, on Saturday, Sderot – along with neighboring kibbutzim, a music festival, and dozens of other locations – were the site of horrific and unimaginable tragedies and atrocities.
As most of the Jewish community knows, Hamas launched these coordinated terror attacks just as Jews ended and then began our cycle of reading the Torah. It’s supposed to be a celebratory day – “Simchat Torah,” the joy of Torah, filled with dancing in the streets. Now, in a perverse irony, it was a day that turned dancing into mourning.
Yet words from this week’s portion, Bereshit, the opening of Genesis, keep resonating with me. I teach it often, as it raises questions of how science and religion interact. Like most post-Enlightenment Jews, I don’t take the text literally, claiming the world was created in six days just under 6000 years ago. Rather, text uses poetic language to explore the ideas of cosmic origins, the development of the natural world, and ultimately, the sanctity of rest and renewal.
If it’s not literal, then, what is its message? In my mind, the crux of the beginning of the Torah is that the universe’s natural tendency is to go towards chaos, and it takes tremendous work to build order. As I wrote last year:
[W]hy [does] each day ends with the phrase “va’y’hi erev, va’y’hi voker” – “there was evening, there was morning.” We would expect that it would go, “there was morning, there was evening,” since our daily rhythm begins when we wake up and ends when we go to sleep. So why is the order reversed?…
Well, the word erev (“evening”) is also used to mean “chaos” (as in the phrase erev rav, a “mixed multitude,” in Exodus 12:38). And the word boker (“morning”) may [evoke] words related to either “split” or “investigate,” as in “putting things in order.” With the repetition of the words va’y’hi erev, va’y’hi voker, “There was evening, there was morning,” the story rhythmically evokes an idea of chaos, then order, at the end of each day of creation.
But the universe’s natural tendency is to go from order to chaos! Scientists know that from the second law of thermodynamics, but we can also see it in our own lives…[And] the only way to combat that tendency is to invest time and energy to [overcome] it…
That’s one of the key messages from the opening chapters of Genesis: if we do nothing, the world will remain tohu va’vohu, “wild and waste.” God brings order out of chaos, and if we see ourselves as created in the image of God, that is our job, as well.
Chaos is what we’re seeing right now, as we hear more and more stories of the atrocities from Saturday. But amidst the chaos, we also hear about stories of unity, stories of heroism, stories of care.
Stories like those of Yair Golan, who for months opposed Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and spoke and wrote forcefully for both Palestinian rights and judicial reform, and on Saturday, risked his life to save innocent civilians. Stories of Tel Aviv restaurants – a city where religious and secular Israelis disagree vehemently – made kitchens kosher so that Orthodox soldiers could eat there. Stories of solidarity across the world, with landmarks lit up blue and white.
Sadly, there will be more chaos coming, for Israelis, for Palestinians, and for all who want to create a just and peaceful Middle East. And so it becomes upon us to create more order in this world. So while I am sad, scared and angry, I encourage you to donate to one of these (vetted) charities, to reach out to friends or colleagues who are affected by these attacks, and, however you can, to show that even as Hamas destroys, we can help rebuild.
May the One who brings peace in the Heavens bring peace to us, to the people Israel, and to the world.