The New Energy When God Started Creating: Commentary on Parashat Bereshit 5784

By Rabbah Rona Matlow, Professor of Jewish Diversity Studies at Hebrew Seminary



In the beginning of the Torah, a small dense mass of words await a universe of expounding. For decades, English-speaking Jews would read Genesis 1:1–2 from Joseph H. Hertz’s 1937 The Pentateuch and Haftorahs:


א בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
ב וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃

  1. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.
  2. Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.


We have since learned that translating the Hebrew term bereshit (“בראשית”) as “in the beginning” cannot be correct. The word bereshit appears in a construct form, meaning it must be tied to some word or phrase that follows it. Bereshit really translates to “at the start of…” Thus, the more recent 2006 translation—from The Contemporary Torah: A Gender-Sensitive Adaptation of the Original JPS Translation—now renders these verses as follows:


  1. When God began to create heaven and earth—
  2. the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—


But I maintain that this modern take (admittedly, a sentence fragment) is not a correct translation either. Let’s explore this. First off, where do our verse numbers come from? Chapter and verse numbering of the Bible were a Catholic Church innovation that gradually became universal through several innovations, from the 12th to 15th centuries C.E. (Charles A. Sullivan, “A History of Chapters and Verses in the Hebrew Bible”). By the time Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia was released in 1978, a standardized numbering system had been arrived at.

When we consider these two verses without verse numbering and look at them closely, we can see that they are one long stream of consciousness. Each clause is connected to the previous through the prefix ו (pronounced ve or va in the beginning of several words in these verses). Each instance of this prefix here means “and,” as follows:


בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃

When God started creating the Heaven and the Earth, AND the Earth was Tohu and Vohu, AND darkness was over the face of the depths, AND the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water…


In this translation (my own), everything flows together, but Tohu and Vohu are untranslated.

The 11th century French commentator Rashi wrote regarding Tohu and Vohu:


:תהו’ לשון תמה ושממון, שאדם תוהא ומשתומם על ‘בהו’ שבה’

The word tohu signifies astonishment and amazement, for a person would have been astonished and amazed at its emptiness. (English adapted from M. Rosenbaum and A. M. Silbermann’s 1929–1934 translation.)

Generally, when I study Torah, I pay great heed to what Rashi says, but here, with all due respect to our great commentator, I disagree. Why?

Before I was a rabbi, I was a Navy Nuclear Engineering Officer; hence, I think in terms of thermodynamics, and I offer an energy-oriented solution here.

When the universe had Tohu and Vohu, we had darkness. Darkness is a state of energy, and it is a relative term. Darkness cannot exist by itself, but only relative to another energy state. Thus, darkness implies some level of energy present. Further, the verse states that there was darkness over the face of the tehom (תהום, “depths”). Tehom—though not clearly defined—is some kind of physical body. The passage relates the tehom to ru’ach Elohim (רוח אלהים), which can be translated as “the wind of God.” If ru’ach means “wind,” we are reading of another physical phenomenon, one which hovers over peney hammayim (פני המים), meaning “the face of the water.” A body of water constitutes yet another physical thing.

By my reading, when God began the Divine creation of Heaven and Earth, we already had a number of things that physically existed. Therefore, existence could not have possibly been unformed and void, as so many readers have understood for so long.

When Hebrew verbs have what grammarians call “soft letters”—such as ו (vav), ה (hey) or י (yud)—these letters might end up exchanged for one another, depending on the conjugation. The rabbis in classical Midrash take advantage of this property frequently.

Using this principle, I can take the word Tohu (תוהו) and make the word Tih’yeh (תהיה), which means “it will be.” This is potential.

            Vohu (בוהו) is a little more complicated because the word begins with the letter ב (vet). But the rabbis in the Midrash have a solution here too. They frequently swap letters that sound the same as one another. If we combine this rule with the rule about exchanging soft letters for one another, the vet in Vohu can become a vav, and we can find the word vehayah (והיה), meaning “it was”—a state of things having already happened.

In thermodynamics, potential is energy. When things have happened and energy has been expended, we have entropy, which is a measure of disarray. Thus, I render Tohu and Vohu as energy and entropy respectively. Such an interpretation not only follows a natural reading of the text. It makes only the more sense when we consider the teaching in Kohelet Rabbah 3:13—that God created and destroyed a number of existences before settling on the reality that we know as our universe.

I’m not the only one who reads Tohu and Vohu this way, however. In his 2019 translation of The Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter reads thusly:


When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep…


“Welter,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “moving in a turbulent fashion,” certainly qualifies as a demonstration of energy. Likewise, waste is a fine example of entropy. Alter’s is a much more poetic rendering, but he reaches the same conclusion.

In my biblical scholarship, there are several truisms that I teach. One is that we need to shed preconceived notions when we read biblical text. Such is the case here. I have shown that several conventions in reading the first two verses are questioned. If this is the case for just the first two verses, how much more so for the entire Hebrew Bible?





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