Behold, It Is Very Good

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה־טוֹב מְאֹד

Va’yar Elohim et kol asher asah v’hinei tov me’od …
And God looked at all that God had made and behold, it was very good … (Genesis 1:31).

The Torah begins, and the curtain rises on creation. The first chapter of Genesis is the magnificent overture to the great drama of human life and striving that will ensue. The language is stately and musical; it should be read aloud. Beginning in darkness, creation unfolds in ever-expanding complexity and glory.

God the Creator shapes and conducts creation in seven movements, which God names “days.” And every day, God surveys God’s handiwork and reflects upon it. And the verdict is a ringing affirmation: It is good.

The world is good.

This view of creation will suffuse the entire Torah and will forever be the foundation of the Jewish worldview. Our world is not something to be transcended or shunned. It is not merely the anteroom to some truly good and perfected realm. It is not a meaningless playground for the gods, we their hapless playthings. No, God has created an orderly universe, and created us and placed us here with moral purpose. This world is our home, and it is good that we are here. This remains true despite our glaring failures, and our deluded and destructive ways. The essential goodness of life abides.

How do we come to recognize this goodness? The key to our understanding is encoded into Genesis’s opening. Seven is the organizing principle of the Torah. The careful student of the Torah will find that sets of seven abound, and that this is not accidental. Seven represents completeness and wholeness. The first verse of the Torah, בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ Bereishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz — “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” — comprises seven Hebrew words; the pattern is set from the first, a seed planted from which the entire Torah will grow. And seven times in the course of the chapter, God surveys creation and sees that it is טוֹב tov — good. The chapter ends with this crowning verse:

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה־טוֹב מְאֹד וַיְהִי־עֶרֶב וַיְהִי־בֹקֶר יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי

Va’yar Elohim et kol asher asah v’hinei tov me’od. Vay’hi erev vay’hi boker yom hashishi — “And God looked at all that God had made and behold it was very good! And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (Genesis 1:31).

God makes the world in six days, but creation is not complete without a seventh: a day to contemplate, a day to appreciate, a day to cease from labor and be restored. The Sabbath completes creation. “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, for on that day God rested from all the work that had been done” (Genesis 2:3). If we work without pausing, if we do not sanctify and dignify our lives with time to reflect, our lives and our humanity are incomplete.

Human beings are God’s culminating creation, the final act of the sixth day: “God created the human being in the Divine image, male and female God created them” (Genesis 1:27). God then blesses us and tells us to “be fruitful and multiply, and to fill the earth and domesticate it” (Genesis 1:28). God gives us dominion over the animals and the plants for our benefit and sustenance. One can infer from these instructions that this is what it means to be made in God’s image; far beyond any other species, we have been given the capability to shape and control creation. Many have taken these instructions as license as our right and our destiny to exploit the world’s resources for our own self-interest. Many blame the Bible for the hubris it engenders in people, as we sully and desecrate the earth as though we have been Divinely empowered to do so.

And if our creation story ended with the sixth day, these interpretations might be valid. But it is the seventh day, Shabbat, that completes and crowns God’s creation. To be made in God’s image does not only mean that we have been endowed with the power to reshape the world. To be made in God’s image also means that we have been endowed with self-awareness, and the capacity to step back and reflect on our actions. And therefore, made as we are in God’s image, we, too, must incorporate the consciousness of Shabbat into our lives. If we ignore this commandment, we fail to actualize the Divine image implanted within us. Instead, if we extract and consume the earth’s resources without pause, we make a mockery of that Divine image. We lose touch with the goodness that inheres in this world. We worship the works of our own hands, and become petty and false gods. We face the results of that failure today, as our planet convulses under the unending onslaught of our domination.

Shabbat is so essential to the worldview of the Torah that it is included among the Ten Commandments. Not only are we commanded not to work on Shabbat, but we are forbidden to make anyone who serves under us labor. Even beasts of burden must be given a day of rest. We relinquish our control and our will to dominate. We pause and step back to regain our perspective. We stop to smell the roses. We restore our sanity and our souls. Shabbat, the seventh day, completes us, just as it completes creation.

This awareness that we nurture on Shabbat is meant to infuse our consciousness at all times so that while we labor, we do not lose ourselves in the frantic striving, nor mistake our busyness for the full and glorious experience of being alive. For this is a good world, and it is good that we are here.