Israel of Kozhnitz on Pirkei Avot, from Avodas Israel.
The world was created by ten utterances [of God, i.e., “Let there be…” (1)]. Since it could have been created by one utterance, what does this teach? It teaches us that the punishment of the wicked who destroy a world created by ten utterances is multiplied, while the righteous who preserve a world created by ten utterances are richly rewarded. Pirkei Avot 5:1
This is a perplexing explanation, that the world should be created simply for the sake of reward and punishment. It also raises the great question: How could a purely good Creator create a world with wicked and rebellious people, and why should evil exist at all? This is the real issue behind the number of utterances by which the world was created.
It is known that koach hapoel benifal, “the power of the Creator is in the creation,” and had the world been created by only one utterance, then all of the world would share G!d’s singular and simple nature, and there would be no creation differentiated from its Creator, and everything would serve God without question, having no separate will of its own. But such a world would be like the world of the angels, who know only God’s will and have none of their own, and so there would be no reward or punishment. Rather, God created the world with the possibility for evil, so that good and evil exist in contradistinction to one another, as darkness and light, for the wicked bring darkness into the world but the righteous bring light. So the creation of evil was actually a kindness on God’s part, for without it the righteous could not choose to do right, and so there would be no reward for them. This is why the author of this teaching used the word lehifara‘ for “punishment,” because lehifara‘ also means to reveal or uncover. So, by the actions of the wicked it is revealed that the righteous receive reward.
And what is the reward? It is the service, as it is written, “The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah” (2). When God gives a person pure and holy thoughts, this is itself Gan Eden, paradise. Likewise the opposite (God forbid!): strange thoughts and the forces of impurity are Gehinnom, hell.
I’ve been asked to give a little more explanation on the basic meaning of the texts, and this is a good teaching to start with, because there’s so much happening and it moves pretty fast. Here’s my humble take on what the Kozhnitzer Maggid is trying to say.
First of all, he lets us know that the answer given in Pirkei Avot for what creation is all about doesn’t hold water for him. I like this, because I’ve encountered (in many religions) the belief that this life is all about getting into the next life, and to me that misses the point. I’m glad the Kozhnitzer agrees with me there. He also addresses the question, asked by everyone from little kids to great sages, why a good God made evil.
The real chiddush, the new understanding that he brings to the teaching, is a reversal of means and ends. The plain meaning of the original teaching implies that life in this world is a means to the end of reward or punishment in the next. According to the Kozhnitzer’s reading, reward and punishment is the means to the end of a meaningful life, that is, one in which we can choose the good over the evil, which is the only case in which good and evil mean anything. In such a life there is a difference between Creator (All Good) and created (a mixture of good and evil), and so there can be a real relationship, as between different people. Apparently this possibility of relationship is worth the suffering that follows evil, and rather than being a challenge to G!d’s goodness it is a sign of the extent of God’s goodness. So the system of reward and punishment, whether as cosmic mechanism or homiletic metaphor, is really a stand-in for the possibility of drawing close to God; hence the Maggid’s reading of lehifara as “uncovering” the possibility of good, not “punishment” for the bad. This becomes clear in the final part (which is actually the opening of the next section that I included here), where any external reward or punishment is rendered irrelevant: the true reward is consciousness of the divine, and the true punishment is ignorance of it.
For a related teaching from the Kozhnitzer, see “The Reward of a mitzvah is mitzvah.”
1) If you count the “Let there be” utterances in Genesis 1, you actually only get nine. The first utterance to come out of the Infinite One was so sublime that it could not be put into words, which is one explanation for why the Torah begins with a Bet, the second letter. It stands to reason that the Torah, the blueprint of creation, should start with Alef, the first (and silent) letter and, indeed, according to this teaching there is an Alef there before the Bet, but it cannot be spoken or even written. The Zohar (III, 11b) counts the tenth as “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make for him a helper to match him” (Genesis 2:7). This fits the Kozhinitzer’s chiddush really well: completion was not complete until there was relationship. 3) Pirkei Avot 4:2
Jeff Amshalem is a graduate student of Hasidic thought at Ben-Gurion University.