The Meaning of Creation (Bereshit)

The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day, God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation He had done. Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were all created. (Gen. 2:1-4)

Whenever I recite these verses as the prelude to the kiddush on Shabbat eve, I am reminded of the English poet John Keats’s famous final lines from his Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all we know on earth and all ye need to know.” The parallel is in the succinctness of these lines and the above quoted opening to the second chapter of the book of Genesis. While the former extols the eternality of aesthetic beauty, the latter champions the meaning of creation.

By indicating that the timeframe for the creative process to unfold is six days, the Torah extols the grandeur of its purpose: the establishment of the holiness of the Sabbath as the guarantor of human dignity. As Rabbi Joshua Heschel has so famously stated:

On the Sabbath, it is given us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time. Even when the soul is scared, even when no prayer can come out of our tightened throats, the clean silent rest of the Sabbath leads us to a realm of endless peace or to the beginning of an awareness of what eternity means. There are few ideals in the world of thought which contain so much spiritual power as the idea of the Sabbath.

Sabbath rest is not passivity. It is the quintessential celebration of being rather than acquiring—which is the primary activity of the other six days.

With this understanding, we can regard the issue of the literalness of the biblical narrative as irrelevant. The Bible is not a natural history book. Chronology is not its forte. Its concern is what creation is for, not how it unfolded. The centerpiece of creation is the Sabbath, and the Sabbath points the way to the Jewish idea of imitatio Dei, the imitation of God, entailing the primary response of appreciation for the gift of life and the opportunity to join God in ma’asey b’raysheet—the ongoing work of creation until every human being can live in dignity and freedom.

It is sad that so much energy is wasted in attempting to promote creationism versus evolution as an alternative theory of the process of the world’s coming into being. The how is irrelevant. The why is everything: to fashion a world in the spiritual image of the Divine.

That is the bottom line for what the human adventure is all about.