"The world was created in ten utterances. What does this come to teach
Could not the world have been created in a single utterance? It was in
order to exact punishment from the wicked who destroy the world which was
created in ten utterances, and to give reward to the righteous who sustain
the world which was created in ten utterances."
Last week we began exploring the concept of G-d's ten utterances. We
explained very briefly the manner in which G-d created the universe -- to
the shallow extent we understand. To begin with, the world contains far
more than heaven and earth. We are taught that there are myriad levels of
existence between G-d's domain and the physical universe we know -- simply
because the physical is too far removed from the spiritual for the gap to
be spanned in a single step. The universe, according to the kabbalists, is
actually an entire hierarchy of "worlds". Each world below is a slightly
more concretized version of the one above. And each world below is
controlled by the spiritual, energizing forces of the world above. We
could imagine it as a very large vertical or pyramid-shaped machine, with
G-d at the top providing the spiritual forces which then trickle their way
down the worlds until they energize the physical world at the bottom.
I don't want to dwell on this concept further since it is basically a
kabbalistic one. Simply, however, the Ten Utterances of G-d correspond to
the ten "Sefiros" -- emanations of His reality and the ten primary levels
of creation. Every time G-d uttered a directive at Genesis, another level
of reality was created -- each time one step further removed from Him.
With the tenth utterance, the physical world we know came into being.
Thus, G-d created a physical world at least appearing many steps removed
from Him, and as a result, man would at least imagine that he is granted
some freedom down here -- that he has the free will to act as he chooses.
However, since these levels of creation are so inextricably bound, man's
behavior, whether good or evil, does not only affect himself or even the
physical world about. How man behaves down here directly affects the
spiritual worlds above -- reaching the highest heavens. If I act with
goodness I do not only improve myself and became deserving of Divine
reward. I actually "fix" the worlds above me. I strengthen the bonds
between the worlds, thereby allowing heavenly beneficence to rain down
uninterrupted upon the physical world. Further, my good deeds themselves
become forces of good, which work their way up through the worlds and then
themselves showers good upon mankind.
Conversely, a wicked deed destroys the bonds between the worlds above. It
creates what kabbalists refer to as "crooked pipes". The spiritual
channels above are interrupted -- and the evil forces created by my sinful
deed come in to fill the vacuum.
I've gotten more graphic about this than I originally intended. It is not
for us to understand the inner workings of G-d's complex universe in any
real detail. But it is important to have some awareness of the basic
structure. The stakes of our behavior are far greater than we ourselves
can comprehend -- or than we would probably care to imagine. In this multi-
layered universe G-d created, man was granted huge powers. We fix or
destroy the universe. And, as our mishna states, G-d will exact punishment
from the wicked who literally destroy His world, and He will reward the
righteous who literally build it up. And as a result, man's ultimate
reward and punishment will be all the much greater.
A common but tragic misconception many people have is that their behavior
is their own business. If I want to sin in the privacy of my own home --
so long as it does not affect the neighbors -- it is my own prerogative.
Why should anyone else care about my own personal failings? What gives
them the right to butt in, lecture, or even pay attention to my behavior?
It's my own life, and I have every right to ruin it in any way I feel!
This issue often goes far beyond the personal. It in fact has plagued the
State of Israel almost since its inception. Although the majority here in
Israel believe in many of the basic tenets of Jewish faith -- the sanctity
of the Sabbath, that the sale of pork is inappropriate, etc. -- there are
die-hard secularists who complain bitterly about "kefi'ah datit" --
religious persuasion. Their argument is a familiar one: What right do
the "ultra-orthodox" have to impose their own views upon others,
attempting to close public transportation or theaters on the
Sabbath? "Forcing" others to observe the Sabbath is an infringement of
their G-d-given(?) rights!
And to Westernized Jews this argument runs deep. Personal liberty is a
precious and inalienable right -- one which we Jews in particular have
benefited from immeasurably. Thankfully for us, religion is viewed in the
West as a matter of personal conscience -- one which governments and lay
people alike may in no way coerce or inhibit. If so, religious persuasion
would seem an infringement of our sacred democratic rights in the most
Unfortunately, though, religious persuasion is based upon some very sound
religious principles. (Whether it is the right approach in a specific
situation -- will it do more good or create more resentment -- is of
course a practical question we are not addressing.) The world and its
inhabitants are related -- to each other and to unknowable spiritual
worlds above -- in ways we could not possibly imagine. We all affect the
well-being of our world and of one another. If any one of us fails to
fulfill his or her mission, the world does not reach its fulfillment --
its "tikkun" in kabbalistic terminology. When one of us fails we all
suffer, and the world, as a result, is that much further from spirituality
Only today does man appreciate the extent to which this is true in the
physical realm. If one person burns a rain forest in Brazil, releases
CFC's into the atmosphere, or pours used engine fluid into a quiet
suburban sewer, the health of the world as a whole will be the worse for
it. The environment, the world and its ecosystems contain complex
interrelationships and interdependencies we can hardly fathom (and often
discover only after the fact).
And the spiritual realm is no less complex. Spiritual deeds, both good and
evil, influence our spiritual "environment" no less deeply. We all share
this world together. Each and every one of us must perform his or her
duty -- do his share to bring the world to its perfected state. United in
service of G-d we move forward; divided we all fall.
With this in mind, the many verses in the Torah which exhort us to proper
service of G-d assume far greater and more profound significance. When the
Torah states, "Beware lest your hearts be tempted and you shall turn
away... And the L-rd will close the heavens and there will not be rain..."
(Deuteronomy 11:16-17), it is not some kind of supernatural threat -- some
miraculous act of retribution meted out by an exacting G-d. It is simply
the "natural" result of our behavior. If we make the world a more corrupt
and less stable place, more disasters -- both "natural" and manmade --
will result. We might even call it the effects of spiritual global warming
(this week's corny title ;-) . For as we stated, there are spiritual laws
of nature every bit as much as there are physical. And foremost among them
is that sins can and will come home to roost.
But perhaps the most tragic aspect of this is the indiscriminate nature of
such forces. Once evil is unleashed, where does it strike? Jewish thinkers
point out firstly that the most likely target will be the perpetrator of
the evil himself (see for example Nefesh HaChaim Gate I Ch. 6). The
wicked city of Sodom is most likely to be overturned. But unfortunately,
the world is usually just not that neat. If you create a situation of
global warming and erratic weather patterns, innocents will suffer as
well -- as unfortunately we've been seeing a lot of lately. (You just
wonder if the US government will recognize how much *more* costly it is
*not* to alter its energy practices than to do so.) In this vein the
Midrash writes, "Once the 'destroyer' is given permission to destroy, it
does not distinguish between righteous and wicked" (Mechilta 11, quoted in
Rashi to Exodus 12:22). The wicked are the true instigators of such
destructive forces, but once unleashed, there's no telling what will
(We've discussed elsewhere how G-d allows innocents to suffer in such a
situation -- though it's nearly impossible to give a truly satisfactory
answer. See 3:19 (www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter3-19b.html)
for some unsatisfactory ones.)
So to conclude, we live in a complex and interrelated world of unseen
spiritual forces -- far more so than we are able to comprehend. It is not
ours to understand this in great detail (although the parallels to the
earth's natural ecosystems are telling). But the primary, crucial lesson
must not be lost upon us. We all share this spaceship earth together. We
all have a mission which can only be achieved in unity. If we fail, the
damage and destruction will be our own responsibility -- and our own
undoing. If we succeed, we become no less than partners of G-d in bringing
the world to perfection.
(Some of the ideas discussed above are based upon the Ruach Chaim
commentary to Pirkei Avos, and more generally upon Nefesh HaChaim, Gate
I. Both works were authored by R. Chaim Volozhiner, of late 18th to early
19th Century Lithuania.)