Making Order of Our World's Chaos by Rabbi Ari Ballaban
On Sunday mornings, I often like to drop in on Rabbi Chessin’s advanced Hebrew classes. In re-cent weeks, she and her class have been working through the very start of the Torah, from the words which are classically translated as “in the beginning.” It feels serendipitous, then, that a monumental new translation of the Hebrew Bible recently was published, written by the respected Bible scholar Robert Alter. Among other things, Alter set out to create a more accurate and critical translation of the Tanakh. His many departures from other classic translations begin, literally, “in the beginning.”
Many of us are familiar with those all-too-well-known first words, from the King James translation of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” In his new translation, Alter works to stay closer to the real grammar of the Hebrew text, and he offers us something more precise: “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth was welter and waste and darkness [was] over the deep…”
Besides Alter’s shift in diction—“welter and waste” supplants “without form and void” in a nod to the Hebrew’s more poetic tohu va’vohu—he also opts to up-date the English in a way few contemporary Bible scholars would today dispute: he shifts the text’s mood. The historic King James translation makes it seem almost as though God created the chaos of the early world. In contrast, Alter’s translation captures what the Hebrew text actually means, that God comes to creation on the scene of an already-existing, chaotic world. According to the actual Hebrew of the Bible, God doesn’t intentionally create this “formless void”; God encounters it, and creates everything in existence despite it.
Though I don’t take the Bible’s account of creation literally—recognizing biblical metaphors for the literary flourishes they are is a Jewish tradition dating back centuries—I’d have to be a fool to miss the beau-ty of this story, which can be uncovered by accurately understanding the story as it was meant to be read. The Genesis story isn’t supposed to tell us that God made everything in the world on God’s own terms and that every piece of creation went “according to plan.” Instead, it suggests that even God, doing the most “basic,” Godly act—creating—faced obstacles. Our world wasn’t a tabula rasa, ready for God to project everything onto it. Instead, God had to take the mess that filled our plane of existence and turn it into something resembling order.
I like this version of creation much better than its alternative. I can’t really relate with an all-powerful God who gets to shape existence according to Divine whims. On the other hand, I can relate with the idea that we have to make the best of whatever reality we are given. None of us arrives into life, a job, a family or friendship, or any other situation with a blank slate awaiting our presence, ready for us to make an impact, with all conditions being perfect. Instead, we arrive to a broken world, with humanly flawed friends and family, without any control whatsoever over what took place before we were born, and with only a small modicum of control over what will take place in the future. Nevertheless, we are responsible for improving the world. We are obligated to try to make our present existence into something better.
At times, our world can feel very much like it is filled with “welter and waste.” Nevertheless, when we encounter things like a KKK demonstration in our streets or the devastation of natural disasters, the lesson of Genesis—revealed by Alter’s translation—is that we have the potential within us to overcome the world’s shortcomings. Even in the act of creation, not even God, it seems, was dealt the best of hands. As we work to create a more just society, we too must play whichever hand we are dealt. Sometimes that hand will be better, sometimes worse; however, no matter our cards, we must stay at the table. The Jewish moral imperative incumbent upon all of us is to find and transform the world’s chaos into the ever-burgeoning beauty of creation.