Destroying the World


The world was created with ten utterances. What does this come to teach us? Surely it could have been created with a single utterance! But this was in order to exact payment from the transgressors who destroy a world created with ten utterances, and to better reward the righteous who sustain a world created with ten utterances.

Ethics of the Fathers, 5:1[1]

G-d is the essence of good.[2] He is benevolent and compassionate,[3] and merciful toward all His creations.[4] How, then, can it be said that the reason He created the world with ten utterances was “in order to exact payment from the transgressors”?!

The mishnah does go on to say that G-d’s purpose was also to grant greater significance to the good deeds of the righteous. G-d being the ultimate and only reality, the sole measure of how real and significant a thing is, is the extent to which G-d imparts being and meaning to it. By choosing to “invest” ten utterances in the creation of the world (“Let there be light,” “Let the earth sprout forth vegetation,” “Let us make man,” etc.—instead of simply saying “Let there be a world”), G-d made our existence that much more significant, and our development of the world in accordance with His will that much more worthy of reward. This, of course, also means that the destructive deeds of those who transgress His will are of greater consequence, as they damage a world made more significant by G-d’s greater involvement in its creation. But if this were the mishnah’s point, it should have begun by saying that G-d’s multiple enunciations were:

“In order to greatly reward the righteous, who sustain a world created with ten utterances.”

The negative fallout from this could have been noted afterward (if it need be noted at all). The fact that the mishnah first speaks of the greater possibility of “exacting payment from the transgressors” implies that this is the crux of the reason G-d created the world with ten utterances, and that its other point—“and to greatly reward the righteous…”—is secondary to the divine purpose. How is this to be reconciled with the concept, axiomatic to the Jewish faith, that G-d is the epitome of good and His creation an outpouring of His infinite benevolence?

The Perfect Number

It is no accident that we count and quantify things by tens, and that the number “ten” is a byword for completeness and perfection. Because G-d created the world with ten utterances, the reality we inhabit is a “decimal” one—a reality that is comprised of ten basic elements (embodied by the ten sefirot, the spiritual “building blocks” of creation), and in which every object, force and phenomenon possesses ten dimensions or attributes.[5]And the reason there were ten utterances, the Zohar tells us, is because the Torah, which is G-d’s “blueprint for creation,”[6] is also ten-dimensional.[7] G-d, of course, could have formulated His wisdom and will in any manner He desired; but because He chose to encapsulate them in the Ten Commandments, the number ten became the underlying structure of creation. No thing is whole, and no endeavor is complete, until all ten of its integral components are realized.[8]

A righteous individual (tzaddik) is one who pursues and realizes this perfection in his life. He fulfills the Ten Commandments and the Torah they embody; he refines and perfects all ten traits of his character, and all ten dimensions of his environment. He “sustains a world created with ten utterances,” preserving the elemental structure of creation and bringing to light the potential for perfection imbued in it by its Creator.

The transgressor (rasha) violates this divine order. He transgresses the Ten Commandments and its derivatives, corrupts the ten faculties of his mind and heart, disrupts the harmony in G-d’s ten-dimensional world. But in doing so he uncovers the opportunity for teshuvah (“return”). On the most basic level, teshuvah is the ability to repent of one’s transgressions and attain forgiveness for one’s past wrongs. On a deeper level, teshuvah is the capacity to transform a failing into a positive force, into the impetus for greater good. A wanderer lost in the desert achieves a thirst for water that no dweller in civilization can experience or even imagine; by the same token, the transgressor lost in the ruins of his destroyed world possesses a yearning for G-d that no tzaddik can attain. By unleashing this yearning and channeling it to agitate his life, the returned transgressor can achieve things that are beyond the capacity of the most perfect tzaddik.

The potential for teshuvah is not part of the “plan.” It comes about as a result of a violation of the divine will, as something that should never have happened; the Talmud even states that

“One who says ‘I shall sin and repent’ is not given the opportunity to repent.”[9]

It is not integral to the structure of creation—indeed, this structure must be devastated for teshuvah to be possible. When it does take place, a new element is introduced into G-d’s world: an element that transcends the ten utterances, transcends the Ten Commandments, relating instead to the primordial possibility of a one-dimensional reality (“it could have been created with a single utterance”) in which there are no “blueprints” or “structures,” no ten-dimensional codes or characters, no diametric realms of good and evil. A reality in which there is nothing save the singular, all-embracing truth of G-d, a truth in which darkness, too, is a source of light, and “evil” is but another opportunity for good.

The Price of Sin

The baal teshuvah thus destroys the world not once, but twice. First he destroys it in the negative sense, violating the divine order of creation. Then he destroys it in the positive sense, transcending its bounds and obliterating its numerical limits.

This is the deeper significance of the two reasons our mishnah gives for G-d’s creation of the world with ten utterances: a) “to exact payment from the transgressors who destroy a world created with ten utterances”;  and b) “to better reward the righteous who sustain a world created with ten utterances.”

One reason G-d formulated a ten-point code of do’s and don’ts for life on earth and created a world that is structured upon this code, is that he desired that man lead a righteous life, sustaining the divine order in creation and realizing its divine perfection  (reason “b” in the mishnah).

But G-d also had a deeper motive: He formulated this decimal structure in order that it be destroyed. In what King David calls “His awesome plot upon the human race,”[10] G-d made man vulnerable to evil so that man’s failings should impel him to surmount the created state, surmount the bilateral, ten-dimensional edifice of right and wrong. He created a world in which every sin has a price—in which the soul of man must experience the agony of disconnection from its source, so that its pain should fuel its quest for even deeper connection. (Thus the mishnah uses the expression “to exact payment” (lehipara), instead of “to punish” or the like—to emphasize that it is not speaking of a divine desire to avenge Himself of the wicked, but to provoke man to teshuvah in “payment” for his wrongs.)

This is G-d’s “first” reason: a motive that stems from a deeper place in the divine motive for creation—from the singular, “one utterance” level that precedes His desire for a ten-utterance world.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Tammuz 12, 5742 (July 3, 1982)[11]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. It is customary to study the Ethics of the Fathers on the Shabbat afternoons of the summer months, one chapter each Shabbat, beginning with the Shabbat after Passover. This week we study Chapter Five.

[2]. Etz Chaim (quoted in Maamarei Admor Ha’emtza’i Kuntreisim, p. 5); Emek Hamelech, Shaar Shaashuei Hamelech, ch. 1; Tanya, part II, ch. 4; et al. Cf. Lamentations 3:38.

[3] Psalms 145:8.

[4]. Ibid., verse 9.

[5]. For example: the human soul is equipped with ten basic faculties (Tanya, ch. 3; et al); there are ten facets to every object—the essence of the thing, and nine possible “states” (Maimonides’ Milot Hahigayon, portal 10); human life is divisible into ten-year phases (Ethics of the Fathers 5:22); ten individuals comprise a “community” and a minyan (Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a; see Tanya, part IV, ch. 23); a tithe of one’s earnings must be devoted to charity (as per Leviticus 27:32: “the tenth shall be holy to G-d”); etc.

[6]. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 1:2.

[7]. Zohar, part III, 11b.

[8]. This is why the fifth chapter of the Ethics, which lists many of the “tens” that categorize our reality and history (the ten utterances, the ten generations from Adam to Noah and the ten from Noah to Abraham, the ten plagues, the ten miracles in the Holy Temple, etc.) does not include the most basic ten of them all—the Ten Commandments. For the number ten expresses a thing’s perfection and completeness because the Torah, which is the spiritual infrastructure of creation, consists of ten fundamental laws; but the fact that the Torah has ten components does not attest to its perfection—it is the Torah that makes the number ten significant, not the other way around.

[9]. Talmud, Yoma 85b.

[10]. Psalms 66:5.

[11]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXX, pp. 1-7.


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