Rabbi Reuven Taragin on Pirkei Avot: World of Tens

By BJLife/Rabbi Reuven Taragin

Posted on 05/07/23

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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 phenomena, often without delineating any ethical implication.

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

The lists of ten are uniquely significant because the number ten symbolizes something full and complete. These lists appear in historical order. The perek begins with the ten ma’amarot (utterances) with which G-d created the world, then continuing with the world’s first ten generations from Adam Harishon to Noach, and the subsequent ten from Noach to Avraham. The third mishnah then mentions the ten trials Hashem used to test Avraham, the ten miracles Hashem performed on behalf of the Jewish People in Mitzrayim and at the Yam Suf, the ten ways the Jews “tested” Hashem, and, finally, the ten 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 mishnah explains the significance of the first list.

The first mishnah explains that Hashem created the world with ten ma’amarot in order to increase the reward and punishment tzadikim 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.[1]

Avot D’Rebbi Natan specifies three actions as sufficient to sustain the entire world: doing one mitzvah, keeping one Shabbat, and saving one life.[2] 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 ten ma’amarot in. The gemara[3] 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, we learn how Hashem twice sustained a sinful world for a period of ten generations[4]. Rashi[5] 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 ten generations gave man a chance.

Though Noach’s actions were not enough to save his ten 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.[6] Through this, he saved the world and received the reward intended for the ten 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 ten tests Avraham passed taught his contemporaries about the value of commitment to Hashem. Indeed, Rashi links Avraham’s ten tests to the ten ma’amarot. Avraham’s passing of the tests and his unflinching commitment[7] to Hashem’s will, ensured a realization of the goals of creating the world. After two sets of ten generations, the ten ma’amarot were finally justified.

Avot d’Rebbi Natan[8] connects the set of ten following on — the ten miracles — to Avraham’s ten 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 benefited 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!    

[1] Kohelet Rabbah 7:19 describes how Hashem led Adam Harishon through the world, showed him how beautiful everything was and told him, “Make sure not to destroy it.” This demonstrates the significance of the role we play in this world.

This idea is the backdrop of the many sources Talmud Bavli, Masechet Shabbat 10a and 119b, Bereishit Rabbah 43:7, Midrash Tehillim 86) that present those who fulfill (specific) mitzvot as Hashem’s partners in creation.

[2] Avot d’Rebbi Natan 31:2 and quoted by the Bartenura) derives the significance of the sustaining or murder of one person from Hashem’s words to Kayin after he murdered his brother Hevel: “What have you done? Your brother’s (achicha) blood cries out to Me from the ground!” (Sefer Bereishit 4:10). The pasuk uses the plural form “achicha” to imply that Kayin killed not only his brother Hevel, but also all of his descendants.

[3] Talmud Bavli, Masechet Kiddushin 40b.

[4] Masechet Avot 5:2.

[5] Rashi ibid.

[6] See Bereishit Rabbah 43:7, which explains that Avraham’s kiruv efforts made him a partner in creation.

[7] See Malbim (Sefer Bereishit 26:1) who explains that specifically Avraham (as opposed to later Avot and Jews) needed to be tested because he came to Avodat Hashem through his own philosophical reasoning (as opposed to ancestral tradition). The tests were a way of clarifying and showing that Avraham’s commitment extended even to situations that he could not explain with his own reasoning.

[8] Quoted by Rashi to Masechet Avot 5:3.