A Word for the Month of Elul – A Month of Teshuvah


Now the earth was unformed and void – tohu va-vohu, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of G-d hovered over the face of the murmuring deep.
Bereshit/Genesis 1:2

The murmuring deep is a “poetic translation” from the Hebrew tehomtehom – deep waters or a deep abyss. Avivah Zornberg shares in her book, The Murmuring Deep, that tohu is echoed in the word tehom and that:

the Hebrew root hom covers meanings like humming, murmuring, cooing, groaning, tumult, music, restlessness, stirring, panic… the first creative act is therefore to create silence – it is not that silence is broken, but silence itself breaks, interrupts, the continuous murmuring of the Real, thus opening up a clearing in which words can be spoken. Speech and silence are created together.

The Targum translates tohu va-vohu as “waste and empty” [1] yet Rabbi Obadja Sforno’s  [2] read of tohu va-vohu is as something which had potential, the potential not yet having materialized, been converted to something actual [3] – illuminating.

With these thoughts of tehom and tohu va-vohu it is interesting that Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, better known as the Sefat Emet [4], taught that the letters of teshuvah tav-shin-vav-vet-hey (תשובה) make up the phrase tohu va-vohu with the addition of the letter shin (ש). And the shin – it makes all the difference! We find the letter shin often inscribed on mezuzot representing the name Shaddai – a name of G-d often understood as G-d Almighty or the All Sufficient One.


“In the beginning, G‑d created the heavens and the earth.” And what is the first thing G‑d said? “Let there be light!”
But isn’t that strange? What’s the point of turning on the lights when there’s nothing yet there to see—and no one there to see it?
So here’s a secret: The original Hebrew doesn’t really read that way. It’s better read as “When G‑d was about to create heaven and earth . . .”— meaning, before G‑d had even started – at that point, He set a mandate: “Let it be light.”
He set the purpose and meaning of everything about to be created: That it should become light.
That explains why, after He creates each thing, G‑d looks at it and “sees that it is good.” It is good, because each creation has its own unique way to shine that light. [6]

Before our Creator shaped our world there was tohu va-vohu, an unformed, noisy chaos. G-d’s silence and words broke in and spoke light. Not light as in the luminaries but a light that sustains and elevates life. And G-d’s desire is to do the same in us. To take those places of tohu va-vohu and touch them with His life-giving Spirit creating a new “real” – something beautiful and good.

In this month of Elul (as well as with every moment of our lives) G-d is holding out to us the gift of teshuvah – a gift of unbelievable chessed (loving-kindness). His Spirit is moving over our hearts wooing us to rest – to quiet and to allow the work of teshuvah to tear down, to rebuild, to heal, to redeem, to restore, to repair, and to create anew.

During the month of Elul may we be intentional with teshuvah, the art of return. May we be encouraged as we remember that, as artists often experience, just before a new creation takes form there is tohu va-vohu. Before that first spark of inspiration there is often a period of darkness, confusion and doubt.

As we search our hearts – and perhaps find ourselves plunging into some murky waters lingering in our soul – may we allow the shofar (the loving voice of Adonai) to pierce beneath the surface, break into these deep waters, shatter our confusion and wake us from the murmuring deep that has lulled us to sleep. May we cry out and turn back to our Beloved – to return to an intimate belonging. May we joyfully receive His new creation in us – new hearts inscribed by the finger of G-d Himself.


the breath of Elohim
long and slow
ever patient
hovering over our hearts

a whisper
wooing us
to dance with the Eternal

a miracle not to be rushed
a moment to be held sacred
made a living memory
one to be danced new
again and again and again

a divine dance

Beloved and beloved
face to face

holy wow!

~ Cindy Elliott

*All photos are from shutterstock.com unless otherwise noted.

1. Targum Onkelos on Bereshit 1:2
2. Obadja Sforno was an Italian Rabbi born in 1475.
3. Sforno on Bereshit 1:2
4. A Hasidic Rabbi born in Warsaw in 1847.
5. Photo Credit: C.R. O’Dell (Rice University), and NASA/ESA
6. Tzvi Freeman, Let There Be Light!

One thought on “TESHUVAH – TOHU VA-VOHU

  1. I especially like this. I can’t explain but somehow it brought a calm to my agitation today. Also some interesting things to think on.

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