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Last week, we discussed the difference between the first twenty generations of man and the next six, heralded by the advent of Abraham on the world stage. Once Abraham came on the stage, he began to “illuminate the world” with Torah, even though it had not yet been given. Prior to Abraham, G-d had patience with the world, and provided everyone with their needs and physical sustenance even though they sinned and transgressed against His will. However, with the advent of Abraham, Torah began to come down to the world, and man also began to take responsibility for his actions. From then on, sinners could expect to be punished and those who followed G-d’s could expect reward.

Looking at the mishna in Pirkei Avot that discusses world history prior to Abram, we see that it divides into two epochs. The Mishna (Pirkei Avot, Ch. 5, mishneh 2) says, “There were ten generations from Noah until Abraham, in order to inform you of the patience of G-d. All these generations angered G-d continuously until Abraham arrived and received the reward of all of them.” But, even before that, the same mishna states, “There were ten generations from Adam until Noah, to inform you of the patience of G-d. They angered G-d continually, until He brought upon them the flood.” So, apparently even before Noah, there was a generations that were sinners and were destroyed.

Regarding the mishna, we can ask several questions. Since the generations from Noah until Abraham angered G-d, what reward was there for Abraham? Their behavior merited no reward, so what does it mean that Abraham “received their reward?” Moreover, the previous ten generations of sinners also angered G-d, and yet the mishna doesn’t say that Noah received their reward. Quite the opposite, they were destroyed in the flood. What was there about the first ten generations that no reward is mentioned, that was different from the second ten generations, whose reward was given to Abraham?

There are those who answer that since Noah didn’t pray for his generation, he received no reward. But, Abraham not only prayed for his generation, but actively sought them out in order to educate them. Consequently, Abraham received the reward that otherwise would have gone to his generation, while Noah received no reward.. However, if Noah did not receive the reward (in the afterlife) of his generation, then who did? There is a reward in the “Garden of Eden” for every soul after it leaves the body, in accordance with the role that it played in this world. If it didn’t go to Noah in his first generation, then to whom did it go? We’re forced to conclude that there never was a reward available to the people of Noah’s generation. And if so, what was the difference between the way that they “angered G-d,” and the way in which Abram’s generation angered Him?

And in general, it must be asked, what is the point of the Mishna? If it is to inform us that G-d is patient, then that is already stated in a verse – “G-d is patient” (Ex. 34:6) – and Rashi explains that His tolerance extends to both the righteous and to sinners. It would seem that the Mishna wants to tell us just how patient G-d is – up to ten generations (since that’s not mentioned in the verse above). But, what exactly does that mean? What is the significance of ten generations of patience?

Like much of Torah, this mishna is best understood by placing it in context. When we look at the first mishna in this chapter (ch. 5 of Pirkei Avot), it says, “With ten utterances the world was created. G-d could have created with one utterance, [but He created with ten] in order to punish sinners, who act to destroy the world that was created with ten utterances, as well as to reward the righteous, who maintain the world that was created with ten utterances.” The chapter then continues with our mishna above, about the early generations of the world. However, if the only point is to teach us history by giving a chronological account of what happened from creation until the present, then there’s a later mishna in the chapter that should have been inserted between the first two. Mishna 6 speaks of ten creations that were created on the six day of creation, before the ten generations from Adam to Noah. It would have been logical to insert this mishna between the first two. Obviously, the author of the mishna wasn’t coming to teach us history. So, what was he doing?

When we look closely, we see a parallel between the first and second mishnas. The first speaks of the ten utterances of creation that also revealed reward and punishment in the world. They indicated G-d’s forbearance and patience while waiting for sinners to return to Him. And when we look at the second mishna about the generations of Noach and Abram, we see that the two sets of generations are precisely about reward and punishment. The first ten generations from Adam to Noah were sinners who destroyed the world and were therefore destroyed by G-d in the flood. That was their punishment. The second set of generations from Noah to Abraham were also sinners, but Abraham was able to sustain them. Abraham’s prayers and efforts on their behalf were enough to inspire some good in them, but they eventually returned to their sinful ways. Ultimately, Abraham received their reward. Thus, the second mishna follows in the footsteps of the first; while the first tells us that G-d created with ten utterances in order to mete out reward and punishment, the second tells us who was rewarded and who was punished.

Still, what was the difference between the sins of the first ten generations, and those of the second? Why was one destroyed and the other left to its own devices? This is best explained by way of example. When a nation goes to war, it has two ways of achieving victory. One is by destroying the enemy, and the other is by capturing the enemy fighters. When we must, we destroy. However, there are situations when the most efficient path to victory is by incapacitating the enemy or capturing him. The same applies to the first and second sets of ten generations. The first were such sinners that there was no hope of rehabilitating them. So, G-d destroyed them. But, the generations that culminated with Abraham could be illuminated and taught some general principles of monotheism. To a certain extent, they could be redeemed. There was some good in them, and destroying them would not have redeemed the good that was present. Since it was Abraham who revealed the good in his generation, it was he that received their reward.

It remains only to explain the number ten. Why does the mishna choose to demonstrate G-d’s tremendous forbearance with the number ten? This is because ten in the Torah represents completion. Where the Torah counts ten (as in a minyan or prayer quorum, or in the ten powers of the soul), it means that it is complete, a whole that is complete with all of its (ten) parts. The number ten in the mishna also represents completion. G-d waited ten generations in order to demonstrate that if these generations could last so long without any good deeds, then they were absolutely bad – there was nothing good left in them whatsoever.

What remains is to apply the principle to our own lives. When we come from a place that is negative – that contains ten levels of the opposite of Torah – we have to respond to our own past exactly the way that G-d responded to the generations of Noah. We have to destroy it. We have to run away from our past and eradicate it, because if we let it back into our lives, it would control us rather than the other way around. Some of the negative aspects of our past still exert control and influence over us, and therefore, we have to stay away from them completely. However, once having achieved absolute separation from the negative aspects of our past, there is something else we can do. We can elevate the past. We can do such a high level of tshuva (return to G-d) that we remove the good parts from our past and elevate them. The greatest level of healing is not the eradication of an unhealthy past, but its transformation. By approaching the past with an attitude of elevation and ascent, we can lift it up and transform ourselves into new human beings, that much closer to the One above. But, sometimes in order to achieve that transformation, we have to first separate ourselves until we’re on firm enough ground to remain unaffected. Afterward, the sky’s the limit. Like Abraham himself, we have to leave “your land, birthplace and the house of your father,” and journey “progressing steadily to the south,” to the land that He shows us. And then, “it will be for a blessing,” and we will not only elevate ourselves, but G-d willing many others as well.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz’l, vol. 15, pp. 70-74 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the Old City of Jerusalem