Holding Chaos and the Divine Simultaneously

The biblical story of creation offers a blueprint for dealing with disasters, like a global pandemic.

From the perspective of the sacred mythology of the Jewish people, the Torah is engraved in our collective unconscious as a guide — a true north — that both provokes and agitates in us, reminding us of our deepest individual and communal aspirations. In this way, it offers us a window into a Jewish collective unconscious. Accessing this collective wisdom can offer us comfort for moments of confusion — such as the one we are experiencing now.

Genesis begins with these words:

When God began to create heaven and earth — the earth being unformed and void (tohu va’vohu) — with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water… (Genesis 1:1-2)

Judaism wrestles with the concept of creation ex-nihilo — creation out of nothing. This text suggests that the starting point of our world was chaos. And just as darkness anticipates light, chaos is both a necessary precursor to and a part of life.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with no clear end in sight, we find ourselves once again swimming in chaos, and many of us mourn the world that was and harbor deep anxiety for the world that is emerging. Sitting at the edge of the unknown, as we do today, is a source of serious dread. For many, bad news is preferable to uncertainty.

But the text continues, saying that a “wind from God,” frequently interpreted as the Divine Spirit, was sweeping over the water. For the religious person this is a declaration of destiny: we are not alone. To put it in terms used by the 20th century Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, God is in search of man.

I would like to offer another version of this same idea. The key is in the power of this little word (prefix, really) ve- in the Hebrew: and.

Yes, we have void, and yes, we have chaos. Yes, we have emptiness, anxiety, confusion, etc. And at the same time we also have the winds of God hovering over us: winds of hope, resilience, courage, vision and creativity.

The spiritual work we have to do is to decide what we are going to pay attention to. We have survived other chaotic and anxiety-driven situations in our lives. We have the tools; they are inscribed in our souls from the beginning. Ours is the work of being mindful, of meditating or paying attention in order to decide where we are putting kavanah, our intention and our attention. The and gives us the clue. Yes, tragedy and also hope.

The and is the beginning of spiritual work. The and signals us that at some point we should turn off the news, connect to people we love, turn to what is reliable in our daily schedule. The and marks our re-creation of routine.

It is on us to do the work of differentiation and paying attention. These are not times to slouch on the couch and be consumed by the confusion, the chaos or the void. This is when our resolve is tested, when we draw ourselves out of the tohu va’vohu, the unformed void, by remembering the and. Let’s be really mindful about every aspect of our life in the re-creation that it is happening in front of our eyes. When we do this work, with help, with partnerships, with conversations, we help a new order to emerge.

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