The Torah’s first creation story concludes:
Va-yechulu…And the heaven and the earth and all of their ranks were finished. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done and rested on the seventh day from all of the work that he had done. And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it for upon it he ceased from all the work that he had created. (Genesis 2:1-3)
Since ancient times, these verses have been a part of the prayers for the Sabbath eve. For Rabbi Hamnunah, a 3rd-4th century Babylonian teacher, Va-yechulu was not mere recitation. It was the deepest of truths, personally experienced by participants in the very act of creation:
Rabbi Hamnunah said: Everyone who prays on the Sabbath eve, reciting Va-yechulu, Scripture accounts that person as a partner with the Blessed Holy One in the acts of creation. As it says: Va-yechulu. Don’t read it as Va-yechulu, the heavens and earth and all of their ranks were finished; rather, as Va-yechalu, they [God and reciter] finished the heavens and the earth and all of their ranks.
The very word, Va-yechulu, offered Rabbi Hamnunah the opportunity to press his point into the (finished) sacred text. Va-yechulu, they were finished, is spelled without a full complement of vowel-letters—ויכלו, instead of ויכולו. The fixed and finished written evidence allows for another reading: not, they [heaven and earth] were finished, but, they [God and humans] finished.
When we raise a cup of wine to make Kiddush and sanctify the day, we first recite Va-yechulu, remembering our role in the making of the world. We recite Va-yechulu with the authority of a creator who, every Sabbath, experiences the satisfaction of the artist surveying the work and deeming it to be finished.
Rabbi Hamnunah held ‘finished’ and ‘unfinished’ so gently together in the palm of his teaching! As he declared humans to be partners in the world’s finishing, he rendered the blueprint-text incomplete without his reading of it. The letters were finished, but not their meaning.
Rabbi Hamnunah might well have appreciated the insight of the modern Israeli poet Rivka Miriam who made the same Va-yechulu verses into a prayer-like poem celebrating the open-endedness of creation.
Don’t finish like the finishing of your heavens,
like finishing the starry dust of their ranks.
In your mysterious incompleteness I will be sanctified.
The poet declares herself sanctified by— the same word means ‘dedicated to’—endless imagination. Hers is the language of Va-yechulu: The heavens/shamayim and their ranks/tzeva’am were finished/Va-yechulu and sanctified/va-yikadesh. But for Rivka, the finishing of creation must prompt the beginning of creativity. At a certain point, the creator-poet lifts her pen for the final time and deems her poem to be finished, even though its meaning is not complete.
With the help of our teachers, Rabbi Hamnunah and Rivka Miriam, we renew the cycle and roll the scroll through another year, celebrating what is wholly complete and holy incomplete.