Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse one: accountability and purpose
23 October 2011, 8:12 PM
We’re starting Chapter Five of Pirke Avot; this is the Chabad translation:
The world was created with ten utterances. What does this come to teach us? Certainly, it could have been created with a single utterance. However, this is in order to make the wicked accountable for destroying a world that was created with ten utterances, and to reward the righteous for sustaining a world that was created with ten utterances.
Here we see the Sages response: the Ten Utterances magnify the Creation in order to magnify the payment due for sin and the payment due for righteousness. How does this tenfold Utterance magnify the payment?
I found a commentary somewhere that said: imagine the simplest possible world. A world without the diversity of kosher and treyf animals, without the diversity of crops, of landscapes, of people, of rich and poor, healthy and sick. The opportunities for sin are diminished enormously; so are the opportunities for kindness. For every Utterance, new opportunities arise. Arise exponentially. With a ten-Utterance world, there are billions of ways to fall short of potential, billions of ways to exceed it.
Still. Why is that good? Why not a simple world?
Another commentary: The question is not why did the Divine actually use the Ten Utterances to create the world—we don’t presume to question. The question is why we are told that the Divine used Ten Utterances. Genesis could have been shorter, could have condensed the Creation into a single verse: in six days, the Divine created the world and everything in it, and the seventh day was a day of rest. Done. Instead, we are not only given each day separately, but (f’r’ex) on the third day, there are two Utterances, creating dry land and then making plants to grow on it. Why are we told this much detail?
The Sages answer that the detail is to impress on us the importance of the universe, and of our place in it; that when we fall short, we do damage not to some inconsequential thing but to a wonderful Creation, a Creation of six days and ten utterances and thirty-one verses. This heightens, they say, the worthiness of the worthy and the unworthiness of the unworthy (or, rather, the second one first, disconcertingly). I’m not convinced of that; the complexity of the world might well lead a person to thinking that he could get away with wickedness or be righteous un-noticed and unrewarded. I suppose it matters if the reader takes away the idea that the multiplicity of utterances denotes importance or complexity.
Presumably, then, the purpose of this verse is to make sure that we take away the idea of magnification by multiple utterances.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,