June 17, 2024
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בַּעֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם. וּמַה תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר, וַהֲלֹא בְמַאֲמָר אֶחָד יָכוֹל לְהִבָּרְאוֹת?
אֶלָּא לְהִפָּרַע מִן הָרְשָׁעִים שֶׁמְּאַבְּדִין אֶת הָעוֹלָם שֶׁנִּבְרָא בַּעֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת,
וְלִתֵּן שָׂכָר טוֹב לַצַּדִּיקִים שֶׁמְּקַיְּמִין אֶת הָעוֹלָם שֶׁנִּבְרָא בַּעֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת: (אבות ה:א)
עֲשָׂרָה דוֹרוֹת מֵאָדָם וְעַד נֹחַ, לְהוֹדִיעַ כַּמָּה אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם לְפָנָיו, שֶׁכָּל הַדּוֹרוֹת הָיוּ מַכְעִיסִין וּבָאִין עַד שֶׁהֵבִיא עֲלֵיהֶם אֶת מֵי הַמַּבּוּל.
עֲשָׂרָה דוֹרוֹת מִנֹּחַ וְעַד אַבְרָהָם, לְהוֹדִיעַ כַּמָּה אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם לְפָנָיו, שֶׁכָּל הַדּוֹרוֹת הָיוּ מַכְעִיסִין וּבָאִין, עַד שֶׁבָּא אַבְרָהָם וְקִבֵּל שְׂכַר כֻּלָּם: (ה:ב)
עֲשָׂרָה נִסְיוֹנוֹת נִתְנַסָּה אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ עָלָיו הַשָּׁלוֹם וְעָמַד בְּכֻלָּם … (ה:ג)
עֲשָׂרָה נִסִּים נַעֲשׂוּ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בְמִצְרַיִם וַעֲשָׂרָה עַל הַיָּם … (ה:ד)
עֲשָׂרָה נִסִּים נַעֲשׂוּ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בְּבֵית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ … (ה:ה)

Anonymous Numerical Lists

The fifth perek of Masechet Avot diverges from the previous four in two significant ways. Firstly, the fifth perek consists predominantly of anonymous statements, as opposed to citing statements in the name of various sages. In addition, the earlier perakim focus mainly on ethics and morals, while the fifth presents numerical lists of various historical phenomenaoften without delineating any ethical implication.

The first half of the perek presents lists in descending numerical order. The first six mishnayot list groups of 10, the following three bringing groups of seven and the final six bringing groups of four.

The lists of 10 are uniquely significant, because the number 10 symbolizes something full and complete. These lists appear in historical order. The perek begins with the 10 ma’amarot (utterances) with which God created the world, then continuing with the world’s first 10 generations from Adam Harishon to Noach, and the subsequent 10 from Noach to Avraham. The third mishna then mentions the 10 trials Hashem used to test Avraham, the 10 miracles Hashem performed on behalf of the Jewish people in Mitzrayim and at the Yam Suf, the 10 ways the Jews “tested” Hashem, and, finally, the 10 miracles that Hashem performed on behalf of our ancestors in the times of the Beit Hamikdash. What do these lists teach us?

Significant Actions Significantly Impact a Significant World

A closer look reveals a common theme across these lists, rooted in how the mishna explains the significance of the first list.

The first mishna explains that Hashem created the world with 10 ma’amarot in order to increase the reward and punishment tzaddikim and resha’im (respectively) receive for their impact on the world. The multiple ma’amarot reflect the significance of each aspect of our world we are rewarded for sustaining. They should inspire us to take our role and impact seriously. In fact, Kohelet Rabbah (7:19) describes how Hashem led Adam Harishon through the world, showing him how beautiful everything was. He then told Adam, “make sure not to destroy it.” This demonstrates the significance of the role we play in this world.

Avot D’Rebbi Natan (31:2) specifies three actions as sufficient to sustain the entire world: doing one mitzvah, keeping one Shabbat and saving one’s life. Man sustains the world when he emulates Hashem, as His creation included refraining from work on one Shabbat alongside the creation and sustaining of the life of one person.

Each person is meant to see his actions as those that sustain or destroy the valuable world Hashem invested 10 ma’amarot in. The Gemara (Kiddushin 40b) elaborates on this theme, asserting that one should always see the world as half meritorious and half liable and his own actions as the ones that determine not only his fate, but that of the entire world as well.

The Generations—Noach, Avraham and the Jewish People

Subsequently (Avot 5:2), we learn how Hashem twice sustained a sinful world for a period of 10 generations. Rashi explains that Hashem did this in the hope that the actions of even one person (Noach or Avraham) would justify its existence. The ten ma’amarot gave the world a chance; the 10 generations gave man a chance.

Though Noach’s actions were not enough to save his 10 generations, Avraham’s were. As opposed to Noach, who survived but did not influence his surroundings, Avraham influenced others and succeeded in steering at least part of the world in the right direction, making him a partner with Hashem in creation (see Bereishit Rabbah 43:7). Through this, he saved the world and received the reward intended for the 10 generations that preceded him. Avraham was not just a righteous individual; he was able to impact his surroundings and, thereby, received the reward “of others” for his influence upon them.

In addition, the 10 tests Avraham passed taught his contemporaries about the value of commitment to Hashem. Indeed, Rashi links Avraham’s 10 tests to the 10 ma’amarot. Avraham’s passing of the tests and his unflinching commitment to Hashem’s will, ensured a realization of the goals of creating the world. Avraham, in particular, merited such a role as a test of his commitment to avodat Hashem beyond the rational—to situations beyond explanation (see Malbim to Bereishit 26:1). After two sets of 10 generations, the 10 ma’amarot were finally justified.

Avot d’Rebbi Natan (referenced by Rashi to Avot 5:3) connects the set of 10 following on—the 10 miracles—to Avraham’s 10 tests. It was Avraham’s efforts that merited the miracles Hashem performed for his descendants. Hashem rewarded Avraham’s supernatural commitment with supernatural intervention on behalf of later generations of Jews. The reward Avraham received from previous generations benefitted future ones as a result.

May our following Hashem’s directives and passing His tests sustain the world He created, merit His reward and merit His performance of miracles on our behalf, and on the behalf of many generations of our descendants!

Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

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