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The Crown of Creation: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5758 (1997) and 5783 (2022) 

Rabbi Sidney Helbraun

September 27, 2022 

Each year I choose one sermon from the past to share again. This year, both as a response to Quiet Quitting and the need for finding balance in our lives, I decided to share this classic sermon from 1997. You’ll notice that the text clearly begins in the past, and then shifts toward the timeless.  

As I was walking out of Dominick’s last week, I couldn’t help glancing over at those supermarket tabloids – you know, the Weakly World and the National Enquestioner, the ones that are always stacked right at the check-out line, so that you can either ponder your neighbor’s purchase of lettuce and laundry detergent or spend a few moments glancing at the exclusive ‘news’ stories.

So, I picked up a copy and, you wouldn’t believe what I found. There it was, right under a frontpage photo of Elvis and Cher’s Las Vegas Love Nest, was a big letter headline. It said: Jewish Leader Claims Science is Wrong! World Will Be 5,783 Years Old Next Week! The article stated that this was the result of research conducted by Dr. Chaim Pupik of the Jewish Research Center. When Dr. Pupik was queried about how his claim dealt with scientific evidence that the world is millions of years old – evidence such as fossils, Dr. Pupik explained: “Look, if God could create the world, don’t you think he could have created it with a couple of fossils?”

While this ‘story’ might hold value to a tabloid paper, it’s clear that this ‘religious truth’ does not hold much value to us. Indeed, most of us would not accept a religion which seriously believed that the world was 5783 years old. And while there are some Jews who accept this point of view, we are certainly not the first generation to doubt it.

Yet, on this day of Rosh Hashanah, this birthday of the world, there are many Reform congregations where the section of Torah being read is not the Akedah, the trial of Abraham which we will read, but rather the story of creation, found at the very beginning of Genesis. Given the fact that we don’t take this story of creation as literally true, what is the rationale for reading this text on this holy day?

The answer, quite simply, is that the Torah’s account of creation is one of the greatest stories ever written. It is a sparse, poetic account, full of power and beauty. It has been the inspiration for countless artistic endeavors, spiritual quests, and scientific forays. For generations, the greatest minds of our Jewish people have studied this text in a search for understanding.

And from my perspective, we read the story of creation, not to find out how old the world is or how it was created. We read it to discover where we come from and to help us understand our purpose in life.

So, where do we come from? According to the story, we come from God. As the Torah explains, when God created all the rest of the world, he acted almost like a magician. God said: Let there be light, and poof, there was light. God said: Let there be a firmament between the heavens above and the heavens below, and poof, there was a firmament. God said: Let the waters be gathered together, and poof, an ocean appeared. You get the picture. God spoke and poof, the object came into being; over and over again. In the Torah, God speaks, and objects appear. God wills it, and creation is done. There is only one exception to this form of creation; only one creature in all of the story of creation was made differently. And that creature is us.

In creating the human being, God took a different approach. You see, if God had intended to create us like all the other creations, God would have said: ‘Let there be a man…’ Instead, God said: ‘Let us make man.’ And instead of concluding: ‘It was so,’ we find: ‘Thus God created us in the divine image…’ God created us.

The story of creation suggests that we are far different from every other created object. Actually, we are not merely different, we are superior to everything created on the previous days of creation. No bird, no beast, no mountain, or desert can compare to a human being; for God merely spoke and called them into being. But humankind, we were created as the crown of creation.

We see this clearly in the Midrash: “Rabbi Huna said in Rabbi Aibu’s name: God created (humans) with due deliberation: First God created man’s food requirements, and only then did God create him. Said the ministering angels to God: Sovereign of the Universe! What is man that You are mindful of him, and the child of man that you think of him? (Ps. 8:5) This trouble, (this human,) why has it been created?’ God replied, ‘If you are correct then ‘Sheep and oxen, all of them’ (ib.8), why were they created? Why were ‘the fowl of the air and the fish of the sea’ (ib.9) created? God continued: A tower full of good things and no guests – what pleasure has its owner in having filled it? The ministering angels replied: Sovereign of the Universe! Adonai Adonai, How majestic is Your name in all the earth’ (ib.10).  Do what pleases You!”

The implication of the Midrash is no different than that of the Torah: Humans are the crown of creation. It was for our sake that the world and all that is in it was created. The mountains were for our enjoyment. The seas were formed for our use. All life, every bit of creation is to be overseen by us. This is the honor bestowed upon each of us. This is the treasure that God has bequeathed to us. And if this is not enough, we were also blessed to have been created B’tzelem Elohim – in God’s image.

We are unique. Of all the works of creation, it is humankind alone that is said to be made in God’s image. That is, we resemble God. And thus, we have been given the challenge of being ‘God-like’. We have the task of imitating God, of acting in the very ways that God has acted.

So, let’s turn back to the story of creation and find out about God, and thus, find out about ourselves. The story teaches that God, first and foremost, is a creator. This is God’s primary activity in the story. So, if humans were made in the image of God, then we must also be creators. And this is most certainly the case.

In fact, I would suggest that the primary activity of human beings is to create. We are builders, thinkers, entrepreneurs and creators, par-excellence. We create every waking moment. And it could even be said that we create in our sleep. I see that some of you are trying to create that way right now! But that’s okay, after all, some of my best sermons have come to me when I was sleeping. Our minds do not waste a second. We are constantly creating.

So perhaps this is what it means to be created in God’s image: To be a creator. And if this is our only purpose on earth then we are set, because the fact is, we humans are magnificent creators. We have created the most marvelous tools, built fantastic cities, devised ingenious inventions. We have brought the world closer together through the marvels of technology and improved the quality of life. Indeed, as each and every year goes by, we seem to become more and more accomplished as creators. Our ability to conceive and build grows exponentially. The future holds limitless possibilities.

But even as we recognize how remarkable our ability to create is, we must still acknowledge that all of our accomplishments pale in comparison to what is yet to be learned. The scope of knowledge that remains just beyond the border of our minds is awesome. And so, the human race is driven to do, to create, to search and to work even more.

In fact, if one examines this situation closely enough, we would find that it is actually quite possible for a being that is driven to create, to spend their entire life at work. Indeed, in light of the Jewish outlook on the nature of humans, it makes a great deal of sense that we would center our lives around our labor, and that we would even consider labor to be holy.

And yet, we must ask ourselves if this is what God intended when making us in His image. Is our only purpose on earth to be creators? For ultimately, a life of labor is not satisfying. One cannot search continuously. One cannot labor without end. One cannot find fulfillment on an endless journey that never reaches a goal. There must be more to our lives than being creators.

Indeed, we know this instinctively. In today’s world there are a great many people craving nourishment of the soul, desiring a sense of wholeness and completion. Some have turned to meditation, others to yoga. Some have turned to fundamentalist religions; others have turned to cults. In today’s world, people are searching for spiritual answers. Why just the other day a gentleman from the Kabbalah Center came by my home selling books on Jewish mysticism door-to-door; asking if there might be interest for a Kabbalah Center to open here. Yes, we are looking for spirituality.

We look because we know, deep within, that there must be more to our lives than creating. We look because our souls are hungry. But far too often, when someone offers to satisfy that hunger, we are only too eager to buy, never bothering to look too closely at what we were sold. The truth is that finding spirituality is just like the rest of life. There are no short-cuts, and no easy answers. You get back what you put in. Spiritual fulfillment must be a constant, regular part of our lives: just like work, just like exercise, just like sleep.

No, the purpose of human beings is not merely to create. There is more to our lives than this. We know it and so does God. And if we look again at the story of creation, we find that this need is also addressed there. In fact, if we look back at the text, we find that perhaps we were not the greatest creation after all. For if, as some maintain, each successive day of creation brought something better and more important into the world, then indeed, there is something greater than us. For while God created us at the very end of the sixth day, on the seventh day God created Shabbat. And according to the Midrash, Shabbat is the pinnacle of creation.

The Midrash says that Shabbat can be compared to a king who makes a bridal chamber. He plasters, paints, and fixes it up. Yet, after all his efforts, it still lacks something. A bride is needed to make the chamber complete. So it is that God created the entire world. Yet after all of creation, it still lacked something. The Sabbath was needed to complete it.

Another Midrash compares the Sabbath to a King who made a ring. After its completion, it still lacked something. It needed a signet. Likewise, after completing the world it still appeared to be lacking something. Therefore, what God created on the seventh day, that finished the work of creation, was the Sabbat itself.

In her study of Genesis Rabbah, Rabbi Deborah Gardner Helbraun, explained that: “These rabbis point to the Sabbath as the pinnacle of creation. It serves as more than simply a day of rest. Without the Sabbath, humanity and all of creation remained incomplete. The Sabbath was created on the seventh day as the “signet” in the crown of creation. Since the Sabbath was the finishing touch, it became the symbol of wholeness and completeness.”

Yet what good is the Sabbat if we pay no heed to it? Shabbat is the day God created for our sake; to model for us the idea that one cannot constantly create. Even God must take a moment for rest. And if God cannot manage without Shabbat, then all the more so with us. We too cannot fully live without taking time to nourish our souls. For six days we may pursue our natural inclinations; for six days we may build, create, and order the world. But on the seventh day we must rest. We must set aside all of our creating: our plans, dreams and goals. We must give ourselves over to nourishing ourselves.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explores this concept in a brilliant and beautiful volume, simply titled: The Sabbath. He writes: “Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time. In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space, [for] enhancing our power in the world of space is our main objective. Yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence.”

Time is the heart of existence. And this is the reason for the Sabbath, to shake us out of our relentless pursuit of creating; to remind us that there is more to life than our labor. To offer us a most wonderful treasure: The gift of time. By observing Shabbat, we are given a key to unlock the treasure of time.

And even more than this, by keeping Shabbat we learn how to be masters of the world. For mastery lies, not in the creation of objects. Mastery lies in gaining control over those objects; in taking control of our lives. We have truly mastered the world when we learn to sanctify, not creation, but time – a theme that is beautifully expressed by the poet Michael Quoist:

I went out Lord.

People were coming and going.

Walking and Running

Everything was rushing: cars, trucks, the street, the whole town.

People were rushing after time.

To catch up with time.

To gain time.

Goodbye Sir, excuse me, I haven’t time.

I’ll come back, I can’t wait, I haven’t time.

I must end this letter – I haven’t time.

I’d love to help you, but I haven’t time.

I can’t accept – having no time.

I can’t think, I can’t read, I’m swamped, I haven’t time.

I’d like to pray, but I haven’t time.

You understand Lord, they simply haven’t the time.

The child is playing, she hasn’t time right now… Later on…

The schoolboy has his homework to do, he hasn’t time… Later on…

The student has her courses, and so much work… Later on…

The young man is at his sports, he hasn’t the time… Later on…

The young married woman has her house; she has to fix it up. She hasn’t the time… Later on…

They are dying, they gave no…

Too late! …They have no more time!

And so all people run after time, Lord.

They pass through life running, hurried, jostled, overburdened, frantic, and they never get there. They still haven’t the time.

In spite of all their efforts they’re still short of time,

Of a great deal of time.

Lord, you must have made a mistake in your calculations.

There is a big mistake somewhere.

The hours are too short,

The days are too short,

Our lives are too short.

You who are beyond time, Lord, you smile to see us fighting it.

And you know what you are doing,

You make no mistakes in your distribution of time to people.

You give each one time to do what you want him to do.

But we must not deface time,

waste time,

kill time.

For time is a gift that you give us,

But a perishable gift;

A gift that does not keep.

Lord, I have time,

I have plenty of time,

All the time you gave me,

The years of my life,

The days of my years,

The hours of my days,

They are all mine,

Mine to fill, quietly, calmly,

But to fill completely, up to the brim.

By observing Shabbat we learn to hallow time, and to take control of our lives. By honoring Shabbat with wine and song, we take charge of our family and our home. We transform our dinner table into a mikdash m’at – a small sanctuary, where we share the gift of time.

Think of the table you shared last night – what a pleasure it was to have the family together, to rejoice together. What a shame that we don’t make this happen each and every week. Wouldn’t our lives be so much richer if we would only treasure that which is equally available to all of us? Wouldn’t we be more complete if we learned to hallow time?

The story of creation offers us a lesson in life. It tells us that by our very nature, we are driven to create. But it also teaches that we will never live up to our highest selves, never achieve the wholeness and completeness, never experience the full blessings of life without practice – a practice that takes place once a week when we hallow Shabbat and learn to treasure time.

Rosh Hashanah is upon us. We have begun a New Year; a time of new beginnings. At this season of renewal, may we, who have been created in God’s image, strive to be holy. May we find a sense of wholeness in our lives. May we treasure the gift of Shabbat. And may we be blessed with your greatest gift – the wholeness and completeness that is Shalom – a gift of time. Amen.

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyar 5784