Powers of Ten
The fifth perek in Pirkei Avos starts off with an explicit theme of the number ten. Each of the first few mishnayos discuss things in groupings of ten. The first Mishna discusses why the world was created in with ten articulations (ma’amarim). The Mishna does this by asking: why could it not have been created through a singular utterance? Its answer is that Hashem created the world through a number of individual articulations so as to be able to fluctuate reward and punishment on multiple levels, respectively for those who keep or violate the Torah. The commentaries explain this to mean as follows: Someone who observes the Torah's Mitzvos is somehow aiding the world’s existence, while someone who chalila transgresses these same Mitzvos is abetting the world’s destruction. Were the world somehow to be a simpler creation, one would then – whether through positive or negative actions – merely be building or destroying one single element. Whereas with the world as a multifaceted creation, when one undertakes an action towards building or destroying it, one is essentially destroying or building each and every facet that has gone into building it.
The Mishna answers its question of why it wasn't created with merely one articulation. Yet the Mishna does not explain why it was necessary for Hashem to create the world specifically with ten articulations (and not some other number). Some of the mefarshim attempt to answer this unasked question as well (see Maharal in Derech Chaim and Reb Chaim Volozhin in Ruach Chaim). One of the answers given is that ten is the first grouping of numbers; it is also the perfect grouping of numbers. The entire decimal system is based around the number ten. The word decimal is actually a Latin word meaning "tenth". The decimal system has been and is the most accepted numerical system. Egyptian hieroglyphics show that it was used thousands of years ago. The French revolution tried to introduce a decennial calendar; it was referred to as the French Republican calendar. The idea of the calendar was that everything was decennial: there were one hundred seconds to a minute and one hundred minutes to an hour, ten hours to a day and ten days to a week. Part of what influenced this effort was the perception that a seven day week is irrational and is a primitive theological organization of days. The other impetus for this "revolution" was that a decennial system is the easiest and therefore most logical system to use.
Another answer given by the mefarshim is that there are ten sefiros (the mystical ‘spheres’). Hence, each one of these articulations is representative or perhaps a conduit for one of the sefiros.
Both approaches leave us still a bit in the air. While it is true that the decimal system is a widely accepted one, why is it necessary that the world be created using such a system? The reason given for the world being created with multiple utterances is only to make it a complex world. Why does complexity need to be decimal based?
Similarly, what is the correlation between the sefiros and the creation of the world?
In the philosophy of mathematics there is a concept referred to as "mathematical realism", (i.e. numbers are what they are and cannot be manipulated). The decimal system is the "perfect" system. Philosophy can only ponder concepts to a point of realism. Once a point of realism is met the item is defined as there is no longer anything that can be pondered. Each one of the ten sefiros represents a mida – an attribute of Hashem, so to speak. The Rambam (hilchos daios) explains that while a human being has attributes, Hashem Is the embodiment of each and every one of His attributes. In other words, Hashem Is at one and the same time the embodiment of mercy and of kindness – each and every mida all at once, yet each one in its entirety.
The sefiros are a perfect number because they are the being of Hashem's Attributes. The world's being created through the ten sefiros signifies the world being complete and perfect. Since the sefiros are a perfect and complete system they cannot be pondered about because they are what they are. The sefiros are the forces behind the attributes which man can attain. They are the human attributes that can be neither rationalized nor pondered further. The Vilna Gaon (see Maaseh Rav) explains that Toras Hasod/Kabbala starts only at the point where philosophy ends.
When something is complete and perfect it is one. Ten tenths is one. The Mishna begins with this question: if the world is a complete unit (created from the ten sefiros), could it not have been created through one and not ten articulations (the one utterance would include all ten sefiros as one unit)? To this the Mishna answers that in order to be able to give more reward and divide punishment Hashem made the world conjoint and multifaceted.
While there is a lot to be learned from this Mishna, the Mishna contains a central message. The Mishna tells us that Hashem so to speak divided His ‘Being’ into ten when he created the world. This division was for our sake. By keeping Hashem's Torah we have essentially brought about the furtherance of the world, whereby extending the elements of its creation. Hence the reward for doing so is multifold. If chalila someone transgresses the Torah the damage and punishment can be kept to the particular elements damaged.
Hashem ‘broke up’ His essence in order to be able to impart us with as much good as possible, and at the same time, to diminish punishment as much as possible.