Beauty in Chaos
By Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Delivered Rosh Hashanah 5777
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was tohu vavohu – unformed, random, turbulent, out of control, tumultuous – chaotic. In the beginning the earth was chaos.
Chaos into order. A key theme that runs through our biblical story, through our texts and liturgy, in our lives today. We seek to impose structure and rules, to see patterns and purpose in a murky vacuum. Chaos represents uncertainty and fear, order is logic and calm. From the very moment of creation, God says “let there be light” to push back the darkness, bringing order to the chaos.
Let there be light. Last April, as the bright Middle eastern sun beat down on us, we carefully filed into a narrow vestibule, moving from light into the chaos, into the darkness.
“Has anyone been here before?” asks our guide.
I speak up: “Whenever I’m here, I’ve been running and totally lost. I can never find my gate. I’ve always been just in time for my bus.”
“Exactly,” replies the guide. “Welcome to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, specifically designed to get you lost.”
A bus station expressly designed to get you lost – to be confusing – to be chaotic. Our guide, host of the Israeli version of This American Life, went on to share a bit of the history of this strange other world we would explore together today. While workers broke ground on the “new” Tel Aviv Central bus station in the late 1960s, it was not finished until 1993. It is the second largest bus station
in the world. The original concept, which still manifests in its utterly chaotic design, was to mirror the shuk, the market in Jerusalem – a myriad of stalls and shops in no particular order, with no beginning or end, designed to keep you wandering and shopping and, well, lost. Chaos in 7 labrythine stories. One of the strangest places I have ever been.
This is no ordinary tourist spot on a trip to Israel, nor is it a regular destination for most locals. There were five Israelis in our group that day, and only one had actually ever been inside the station. Disliked from the day it opened, it has fallen into disrepair and disregard. Of the seven floors, only four are in active use.
Sticking close as a group, we walked through one of the shopping areas designed very much like an indoor market. Every other stall was closed, and the odd assortment of off-brand shoes, purses and t-shirts were dim and faded under the blinking fluorescent light.
As we made our way through an equally sparsely populated food court on the fourth floor, we wound our way to floor seven, used sporadically for local bus routes. Unlike the dark, subterranean floors we entered on, natural light filtered through a few skylights and oddly placed windows. “I won’t say much yet about what we’re seeing here,” shared our guide. “Go. Explore.”
In pairs and threes, we spread out around the floor. Each and every wall was covered with exquisitely detailed, complex, and chaotic graffiti art. Floor to ceiling murals full of colors, spirals, otherworldly monsters and veiled social commentary. “When the floor went into disuse, the station owners invited artists to do a little redecorating here,” shared our guide. From the chaos of rot and ruin to the chaos of interpretation and art.
Like a bizarre, alternate universe, with Escher-like staircases and passageways, we continued to uncover curious corners of renewal and creativity. On somewhere between the second and third floors, a never-used movie house is home to a fringe theater group – through a crack in the door, we glimpsed two strange figures locked in a voiceless dance wearing large papermache masks. Everywhere we looked was darkness, chaos, beauty. Tohu vavohu – the swirling, primordial forces of creation. I never expected to find any of this in a half-empty bus station.
My visit to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station changed my perspective on the Creation story that we read today, as we celebrate the birthday of the world. My visit to the Tel Aviv Central Bus station changed my perspective on God. God does not respond to the chaos of the-universe-before-there-was-a-universe with Seder, with rules and straight lines and order. God is an artist. Out of the chaos, God creates.
As we move from one year to the next and return to the beginning of our yearly cycle of Torah readings, we find three further examples of chaos and creation in the book of Genesis – inspirational stories of chaotic moments and the creative, generative responses of our biblical ancestors.
Just a few verses ahead of today’s creation story, we find God and Adam together in the Garden of Eden. As the story goes, God has created every kind of living thing imaginable, but hasn’t given anything a name. Imagine looking around this room and not knowing a single name for a single person here. Now, imagine looking out just beyond the tent, or in your backyard, and you have no words to describe the various trees, bushes, and other animals you see outside. Complete chaos! So God tasks Adam with naming each and every animal on earth. In response to what could be a chaotic, overwhelming experience, “God…brought Adam to see what he would call each [animal], and whatever Adam called it, that became the creature’s name. Adam gave names to every domestic animal and to the birds of the sky, and to all the wild animals…” (Gen 2:19-20). Can you imagine naming a giraffe, a lemur, an elephant? Adam is God’s partner, helping to create the world around him. In response to chaos, we can create new meaning.
Later, in Parashat Hayei Sarah, we meet Rebecca – strong-willed and as independent as biblical women come. Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for his son, Isaac. Eliezer, impressed by Rebecca’s kindness toward both people and animals, hopes she will return with him to be Isaac’s wife. In an odd turn for our biblical narrative, Rebecca’s father and brother insist that she, herself, must consent to this arrangement. Rebecca is faced with a choice. She can remain in the comfort and safety of the only home she has ever known, or she can set out into uncertainty, into the chaos of a new life with a new family. Rather than running away from risk, Rebecca responds to chaos with bravery: “I will go,” (Gen 24:58), she says. In response to chaos, we can face the unknown, creating a new path and even a new life for ourselves.
Earlier in Genesis, Abraham faces the chaos of imminent destruction, a fear we know all too well today. Rather than cursing fate or retreating in despair, Abraham stares into chaos and seeks to create justice. When God plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argues with God: “Far be it from You to do such a thing, killing innocent and wicked alike, so that the innocent and the wicked suffer the same fate. Far be it from You! Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” (Gen 18:25) cries Abraham. With words especially poignant in this high holiday season of divine judgement, Abraham’s words ring in our ears. We do not need to accept the archaic chaos of unetaneh tokef – who shall live and who shall die – or modern chaos of random acts of terror and violence. Just 132 miles from the creative energy of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, Damascus is full of destructive chaos. 132 miles is the exact same distance from Boston to Great Barrington. The images of violence, war, and utter chaos fill the news from Syria each day. But we come from a faith tradition of arguing with God, of demanding justice. In response to chaos, we can create dialogue, and we can create justice.
Created in the image of God, we can turn chaos into creation. We can respond to a world of uncertainty, fear, and randomness with leadership, bravery, and creativity. We can turn an aging bus station into an artist colony, we can create meaning and adventure, dialogue and justice. May this be a year of creativity for us all.