Shabbat Live Sermon – Rabbi Ninio, Friday 13 October 2023

This week, our Torah reading describes the creation of the world; it says that there was “tohu vavohu,” chaos, a void, unformed, primordial nothingness, described by Rabbi Oren Hayon as: “murky shadows and jagged edges, all colour muddled into an unseen, violent blur[1]” and from this raging darkness and swirling chaos, God spoke and created light. According to the tradition, this was not light as we know it, the sun was not to be created for another few days; this was a light of discernment, a light of goodness, of peace, a light which warmed with its purity and hope. It pushed away the chaos, it gathered the darkness and the evil and banished it to the outer reaches, locked away, contained, and the light gently floated, bathing all that was in its beauty and comfort. Holy, sacred words banished the evil and brought light, created the earth and all that would be, and God saw that it was good.

But then, less than a chapter later, the dust of the earth from which the first human was created was soaked in blood as his child murdered his brother. The evil and the darkness found a way to invade the light, and this time, there were no words. Paradise was lost, and humanity was plunged into the reality of our imperfect, sometimes cruel world.

This week it seems that we have seen the unravelling of creation; we have returned to the “tohu vavohu,” the chaos, the evil, the swirling darkness threatening to engulf us all until we drown in the sorrow and the horror of what we have seen, what we have experienced. And it seems there are no words. What can we say in the face of such hatred and cruelty, the terror which continues long after the blows have been inflicted? The fear and grief, the suffering and pain, we feel it together with all of our family, in Israel and around the world. For we are a family when one of us hurts, we all feel the pain, and there is so much pain. We are aching for the parents who are searching for their children, for the brothers and sisters, partners and friends whose hearts are shattered as they mourn and grieve, or they sit in the impossible uncertainty of not knowing, minds imagining a horror which cannot be fathomed. And at the same time, sending their children, their partners, their parents, and their friends to fight in a war, knowing that not everyone will return to loving arms. Embracing loved ones who go to defend our dream, a place of peace where we can dwell in safety under our vines and under our fig trees.

We are all overwhelmed with grief and trauma, the images, the endless reports and videos, oceans of ink spilled in words and more words, trying to explain, to understand, to comprehend what has happened, what is happening, and what could happen. We don’t dare speak the unimaginable, and yet we need to speak to try and grapple with the tide of emotion. We are trying to make sense of the “tohu vavohu,” the chaos and darkness and to grasp the light, to find the hope. It is so hard. We battle with ourselves; part of us is drawn to discover everything, to know all that we can, and at the same time, the urge to crawl into our beds, pull the blankets over our heads safe and warm and pretend that it is not happening, to find in the darkness, security and safety, not fear and vulnerability.

We are angry and afraid. We have an open wound inflicted by those who would seek to destroy every one of us. The trope of centuries, one we hoped and prayed, had been banished to the corners, contained, never to return. But it seems the scab was just over the surface; the forces of darkness were there, simmering in their evil, gathering strength until they were able to burst forth once again and return our world to “tohu vavohu,” the gaping wound, hurting and stinging, stunning with its ferocity.

And we felt it here. Warned to be concerned for our safety, our children cover their Jewish school uniforms, walk into school and kindergarten past armed guards and police. Places of learning where they should be safe, free to laugh and play and explore the world, have become places where they wonder if they should go if they will be safe. We walk the streets only after removing the visible signs of our Judaism, we enter our sacred holy spaces only after checks and questions, identification and searches. We are scared, and we are angry; we feel betrayed that in our home, people can burn Israel’s flag and chant for our destruction, wish that we did not exist, celebrate the acts of depravity and evil, bring into being the “tohu vavohu.”

But alongside our fear is defiance; we will not allow the light to go out; we will stand together with Israel and with each other. We gathered here in Sydney, 10,000 strong, not to hurl words of hate and destruction but to pray and hope for peace, for strength, to find comfort in each other’s arms, and to understand the true meaning of solidarity. We stood, shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, sending the message that we are here, that we will not be beaten by our fear. We are afraid, we are hurting, we are wounded in our souls, but as we have done through the centuries, we grasp for the hope, we find the light in each other, in the embrace of community, which is the beating heart of our people. We are a family, and we are together.

There is a prayer in Judaism called the shehecheyanu prayer, it thanks God for enabling us to reach this time; traditionally, it is said at times of new beginnings, of celebration and rejoicing. This week, I read an article by Jordana Starkman reimagining this prayer. She said that the shechechyanu prayer, which thanks the spirit of the universe for bringing us to this current moment, may not be only for moments of unsurpassed joy and beginnings, perhaps, she says, it can help us find moments of grace in even the darkest of times. Jordanna recited her prayer when her mother died from a brain aneurysm, another friend died two weeks later, and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her sister received the same diagnosis a few months later. In Jordanna’s reimagining, at her mother’s shiva prayers, she recited, “Blessed are you Eternal Spirit who has given me life, sustained me and brought me to this season, surrounded by a community of Jews who dress me, love me and feed me fancy pickle barrel sandwiches.” When her sister was diagnosed with cancer, she recited: “Blessed are you, Eternal Spirit, who brought us to this moment together instead of alone.”

In the “tohu vavohu,” in the chaos and darkness, she found light, she discovered blessing, she found what she describes as “every emotion which lives in the cracks between grief and loss, apathy and silence, gratitude… (and) hope” [2]

Blessed are You, Eternal Spirit, who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this season, where despite our fear, our loss, our struggle, we have come together this Shabbat to pray, to hope, to dream and to be together

Blessed are you, Eternal Spirit, who has brought us community, our family of comfort, a place where we can be together, we can feel our hearts united, the power of our unity in our diversity, where we can embrace one another and be together in our pain and our grief, we can speak the words and find in the music, the expression of our complicated feelings and emotions. We can laugh and cry and hold one another in safety and in our vulnerability.

Blessed are You, Eternal Spirit, who has brought us incredible friends. People from all parts of our lives and our world who have reached out in support and kindness. Those who are keeping us safe, who are protecting us and our sacred places, who are helping us create pockets of security and peace amongst the “tohu va vohu.” The beautiful souls who have embraced us and enfolded us in love with messages, letters, cards, flowers, a wordless hug, an expression of sorrow. Those who stand with us against the evil: politicians, leaders, communities and groups who have spoken out, unequivocally condemned the acts of hate and terror, who have, pushed the evil down with their words, their light and their care.

Blessed are You, Eternal Spirit, who has enabled us to see the power of unity, the goodness in humanity, the kindness and compassion in Israel and around the world, as we reach out with help and support. In Israel, the whole country has mobilised food, supplies, care for the soldiers, for the families who have lost everything, and for those who are in a special hell of not knowing. Every single person is involved, doing what they can, singing songs of hope from balconies, waving to those heading for war, displaying signs filled with messages of love and gratitude, people running outside with food and water, warehouses overflowing with volunteers and donations for people in need. Hands and hearts are open to one another, and we are blessed to see that there is strength and power in goodness, so much goodness.

Blessed are You, Eternal Spirit, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this moment, where we have been given the opportunity to be the light, to embrace one another, to be together and to cling to hope, to be warriors for peace, and to shape the world we want to see.

Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Haolam, shechecheyanu, veki’imanu vehigiyanu lazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, Eternal Spirit, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this moment.



[1] “Seven Days, Many Voices” Rabbi Benjamin David (ed.)

[2] A Shehechiyanu for Shitty Times” Jordanna Starkman, Hey Alma

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