World of Tens
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בַּעֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם… (אבות ה:א)
עֲשָׂרָה דוֹרוֹת מֵאָדָם וְעַד נֹחַ…עֲשָׂרָה דוֹרוֹת מִנֹּחַ וְעַד אַבְרָהָם…(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 (chapter) of Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, diverts from the previous four in two significant ways. As opposed to the first four, which quote “sayings” of various sages, the fifth perek predominantly consists of anonymous statements. In addition, the earlier perakim focus mainly on ethics and morals, while the fifth perek presents numerical lists of various historical phenomena, often without delineating an 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 groups of seven, and the final six groups of four. The lists of ten are uniquely significant because the number ten symbolizes something full and complete.

These lists of tens appear in historical order. The perek begins with the ten ma’amarot (utterances) with which G-d created the world and continues with the world’s first ten generations (from Adam Harishon to Noach) and the subsequent ten (from Noach to Avraham). It then mentions the ten trials with which Hashem tested Avraham, the ten miracles that Hashem performed on behalf of the Jewish people in Mitzrayim and at Yam Suf, the ten ways the Jews “tested” Hashem, and, finally, the ten miracles that Hashem did on behalf of our ancestors in the times of the Beit Hamikdash.

What do these lists aim to teach us?

Significant Actions Significantly Impact a Significant World

A closer look at the lists reveals a broader common theme.

The first Mishnah explains that Hashem created the world with ten separate ma’amarot in order to increase the reward and punishment tzadikim and reshaim (the righteous and the wicked, respectively) receive for their impact on the world. The multiple independent ma’amarot reflect the significance of each aspect of our world. They should inspire us to take our role and impact seriously.

The Generations — Noach, Avraham and the Jewish People

The next Mishnayot build off the significance of man’s actions. Rashi explains that Hashem sustained the world for ten generations (from Adam to Noach) in the hope that (even) one person (Noach) might justify its existence. The ten ma’amarot gave the world a chance; the ten generations gave man a chance.

The second series of ten generations link Noach to Avraham. As opposed to Noach, who survived but was unable to save his world, Avraham succeeded in steering (at least part) of the world in the right direction. Through this, he 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.

The ten tests Avraham passed expressed and taught his contemporaries about commitment to Hashem and thus earned him his reward. Rashi links Avraham’s ten tests to the ten ma’amarot. Avraham’s passing of the tests and commitment to Hashem’s Will realized the goals the world was created for. Though a full two rounds of ten generations later, Avraham’s actions eventually justified the ten ma’amarot.

Avot d’Rebbi Natan connects the next ten — 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.

Appreciating Our Context

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

Written up by Yedidyah Rosenwasser