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In Bereishit, we read about the creation of the universe. The entire early history of creation is covered in just a few short passages, and every small detail is of seminal importance. One detail that demands particular scrutiny is the order of creation. And perhaps the most glaring question of all – why were humans created last? Why did we only appear on the scene late on the Friday of creation?

It’s a question that the sages of the Talmud engage with. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) presents a number of different answers.

The first is that human beings were created last in order to establish God as the sole author of creation. If people were around from the beginning, says the Talmud, later generations might be swayed to regard creation as a partly human undertaking, rather than a wholly Divine endeavour. They might come to believe that we were God’s co-creators, so to speak, in the work of creating the world.

That presumption itself is an extraordinary statement about the greatness and creative genius of human beings. And indeed, just by looking around us, we see how so many wonders of our world are man-made. Buildings and infrastructure, electricity, running water, cars, the internet – the sheer scale and scope of human ingenuity is breathtaking.

It is also true that, as our Sages state, human beings are called on to be God’s “partners in creation” – partners in creating a better world, and in bringing the world to its perfected state. Ultimately, though, it’s important to acknowledge God as the One who created the universe alone, who set everything in motion, who created the framework within which human creativity can be unleashed. We need to acknowledge that we live in a world created, ex nihilo, yaish m’ayin, by God – that we ourselves are His creations, and that all of our amazing creative powers are God-given.

Our sages teach us to embrace this dual nature of humankind. That on the one hand, we have this awesome creative potential, but on the other, we are not self-made; we are, in a fundamental sense, entirely indebted to and reliant on God for both our existence and our amazing gifts and abilities.

Later on in the parsha, we learn that human beings are created in God’s image, which touches on this dualism. Being created in God’s image means we all have a Divine soul within us. So we have this almost supernatural greatness, but it’s a gift from the One who made us.

This relates to the second answer the Talmud provides to the question of why humans were created last – to instil in us a sense of humility. Because of the awesome Divine greatness within every human being, there is a natural tendency to be arrogant, and so we need to be reminded that we are God’s humble creation. As the Midrash says, even the mosquito was created before us.

A third reason is that God wanted Adam and Eve to walk into a world which was ready and waiting for them. Human beings are the purpose of creation. Why? Because we alone – among all of God’s creatures – are blessed with the gift of free will. We have the ability to do good, to do what’s right, to fulfil God’s will, not because we have to, but because we choose to.

None of the other creations of this world possess free will. The animal kingdom operates on instinct – animals do not and cannot make moral choices. Even the lofty angels are beings without free choice. They are pre-programmed to praise God and carry out His will. Human beings, on the other hand, have free will. We can make moral decisions and choose between right and wrong. Though our instincts and impulses are extremely powerful, through the force of our will, we are able to rule them – or at least channel them in positive directions. This is the qualitative difference between human beings and any other creature that God has created. Indeed, the Rambam (The Laws of Repentance, Chapter 5) says this ability to choose freely is the defining characteristic of a human being.

So, all of creation in its balance and beauty and perfection is but an elaborate stage for human beings to live a meaningful life, making moral choices aligned with the will of our Creator. And of course, free will is also the foundation of the Torah, the blueprint for living a moral, meaningful, Godly existence.

The fourth reason that Adam and Eve were created last on the Friday of creation, says the Talmud, so they would enter straight into Shabbat. God orchestrated creation in such a way that the mitzvah of Shabbat – a full, complete ‘day of rest’ – would be one of humankind’s first experiences on this earth. Why does Shabbat occupy such a central place in the human experience, going back to the beginning of the world? Why is it that Shabbat had to lay the foundation for human development?

The answer to this question, as we shall see, ties together all three of the other answers provided by the Talmud.

Firstly, Shabbat touches on the very purpose of creation, which is, as we have discussed, to exercise our free will in fulfilling God’s will. We do so by performing the mitzvot of the Torah, which is a revelation of his will. And Shabbat, we know, is one of the Torah’s central mitzvot. This is why one of the first experiences humanity entered into was Shabbat. One of the first things we did in this world was to perform a mitzvah. We were born into mitzvah. The very purpose of creation was that we should become the loyal servants of God.

And by beginning human life on earth with a mitzvah, this idea is conveyed in the most powerful way.

Our sages teach that with the creation of Adam and Eve, God becomes a king for the very first time. As our sages explain, there is no king without a nation – meaning that you cannot be described as a king unless there are free-willed subjects who acknowledge your kingship. So with Adam and Eve entering into the mitzvah of Shabbos at the very beginning, they were, in fact, acknowledging God as King, and we do the same each week when we keep Shabbos.

Human history begins with Shabbos and ends with Shabbos. Our sages compare the messianic era to a great Shabbos that arrives at the world after no longer than 6 000 years – the seventh millennium is the great Shabbos of human history. And so human history begins with Shabbos and ends with Shabbos. It begins with a connection and an acknowledgement of God as King through the very first Shabbos, and ends with an acknowledgment of God as King with the final Shabbos of the world, when the entire world will recognise the kingship of Hashem.

Shabbos is also a testimony to our faith in God as the Creator of the universe. This is crucial. Although Adam and Eve had an intimate knowledge of God and understood that He was the Creator of the universe, with each passing generation, this knowledge and understanding faded. Shabbos is our weekly reminder that God created the world. When we recite Kiddush on Friday night, we testify to God’s existence and His sovereignty over all things, and we make explicit mention of His “Acts of Creation”.

Shabbos is also an act of humility and restraint on the part of human beings. As we have mentioned, it is the very Divine greatness that God has blessed us with that can lead us away from Him as we get caught up in our own abilities. Shabbos helps dispel that sense of arrogance that can creep into our hearts. On Shabbos, we cease imposing our will on the world around us. On Shabbos, we step back from all our creative endeavours, and acknowledge that God is the ultimate creative force in the universe. On Shabbos, we remind ourselves that our greatness comes from God.

Ultimately, we see that being created last and then stepping straight into Shabbos equips us with so much: a sense of purpose, a sense of humility, a sense of our place in creation, and ultimately, a recognition that God is the Source of it all.