The “Ten Sayings” of Creation: Unity, Multiplicity, and Ecology

by Rabbi Dovid Sears

This article is printed as part of the Tu b’Shevat Learning Campaign, sponsored by Canfei Nesharim, an organization that is educating the Orthodox community about the importance of protecting the environment.  


Jewish mystics speak of “Four Worlds.” These Four Worlds are actually four stages in a sequence that spans the first point of creation with the last, the highest with the lowest: Emanation, Creation, Formation and Action. Beyond them all is the primordial Divine Oneness, the encompassing Infinite Light of God known as Ein Sof.

The great Italian kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (RaMCHaL, 1707-1746), explains, “The Four Worlds of Emanation, Creation, Formation, and Action are not four graduated domains, actually divided from one another . . . Rather they comprise one category . . . one hierarchy . . . Each contributes its own part to the creatures [that live in the physical universe].”[1]

Elsewhere, RaMCHaL asserts, “However, one of the fundamentals [of creation] that the Blessed One innovated is the category of measure and limitation. For within the Divine Simplicity, measure and limitation do not apply. From the moment He willed into existence the ladder of hierarchy, He prepared everything with measure, and set up all existence in a graduated manner, one thing below the next, from the first in the sequence until the last.”[2]

Why did Hashem create a hierarchical universe? Surely He could have just as easily created a universe in which all things are equal.

The Mishnah might be understood to address this question when it states, “With ten sayings the world was created. What does this come to teach us? Indeed, could it not have been created with one saying? It was to exact punishment from the wicked who destroy the world that was created with ten sayings, and to bestow goodly reward upon the righteous who sustain the world that was created with ten sayings.”[3]

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1833-1900) infers from these words the inherent advantage of a hierarchical universe. He comments, “It was not with just one word, one summons of creation, that the Almighty brought this world into being, the whole of it and every detail; for if it had been created in this manner, everything would be directly dependent upon God’s Word for its existence, life, and functioning. Instead, He called forth His world into existence in ten stages; He created an abundance of forces, intermingled and functioning closely together, according to His Word – and then He separated them, so that each had to sustain the other: none was henceforth able to exist and function by itself, but had to be sustained by its fellow creatures and, in turn, had to help them exist and function. In this way everything contributes according to its strength, however much or little, to the existence of the whole; and if it destroys a fellow creature, it robs itself of what it needs for its own existence.”[4]

This interdependence is really the foundation of Jewish ecological awareness, from which all practical action springs forth. We create what the kabbalists call the “World of Tikkun (Repair)” – a world of healing in which all elements can interact and not remain isolated, separate entities – when we see ourselves in context of the whole system of life, within which we exist like notes in a vast symphony. In consequence, we learn to cooperate and become “givers,” not merely “takers” in the world.

The science of ecology guides us in certain ways so that we may fulfill this role at the most practical, material level. But it is consistent with our entire avodah, our path of divine service altogether.

Jewish activists have embraced Tu B’Shevat, the “Rosh Hashanah of trees” mentioned in the Mishnah, as a symbol of the Torah’s concern for the natural world. Numerous source texts demonstrate that the new Jewish environmentalism is not just a matter of “political correctness.”[5]  However, the Torah expresses a spiritual ecology, as well: a way for us to become “partners with the Holy One, blessed be He” on all planes of existence. This is one of the meanings of“ve’khol nesivaseha shalom . . . and all [the Torah’s] ways are peace” (Proverbs 3:17). The Torah brings creation in all of its diversity into harmony with the Creator.

It would be mistaken to separate the seemingly “practical” parts of Torah from the seemingly “spiritual” or “religious” parts, as certain activists seeking validation from Jewish tradition have done. Reciting Kiddush on Friday night benefits creation in one way, and not polluting the air, which is also a mitzvah,[6] benefits creation in another way. “Torah achat yihiyeh lakhem . . . One Torah there shall be for you” (Numbers 15:29).

One example of this unity which immediately comes to mind is a teaching of Chassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslev (1772-1810) concerning the practice which is virtually synonymous with his name: hitbodedut, or secluded meditation and prayer.

Rabbi Nachman speaks from the standpoint of the underlying unity between man and nature, and even the sacred and the ordinary (at least in the sense that the two are profoundly intertwined). From his perspective, all existence comprises one intricately connected whole. He states: “Winter is an aspect of pregnancy, and summer is an aspect of birth. In the winter, all the plants and grasses die. Their strength has dissipated, and it is if they are dead. But when summer comes, they awaken and come back to life. Then it is good to meditate in the fields. It is written, ‘Isaac went out to meditate (su’ach) in the field’ (Genesis 24:63). The Gemara teaches that this meditation was prayer:[7]supplication and deep yearning for God. Meditation and prayer are called ‘sichah.’ A plant or shrub is called ‘si’ach.’ Thus, when the plants of the field begin to return to life and grow, they all yearn to be included in one’s sichah, in meditation and prayer.”[8]

Aside from the word play of sichah and si’ach, we may ask: why are prayer and the grasses so intimately connected?

Perhaps this may be understood in light of the Midrashic teaching that an angel is appointed over each blade of grass, which strikes it and commands “Grow!”[9] In the scheme of divine providence, angels preside over the strictures of nature; they channel the Divine influences that determine whatever takes place on the lower levels of creation.[10] In kabbalistic language, angels are bound up with tzimtzumim, constrictions of the Divine Light.[11] These constrictions need to be tempered by our words of prayer, which ascend from this realm of multiplicity to the Divine Oneness. Through prayer, energies on the physical plane become transmuted to the spiritual, and energies on the spiritual plane become transmuted to the physical. Thus, the constrictions fulfill their role in the divine plan, and we fulfill our role in tempering them. Rabbi Nachman’s teaching about meditating in the fields shows us that prayer needs the grass, and the grass needs prayer. Which brings us back to ecology.

Without environmental awareness and responsible action, we cannot fulfill our religious obligations. Indeed, such awareness intrinsically constitutes a religious obligation, in that we recognize the awesome interconnectedness of creation and guide our actions accordingly. By attuning our perceptions and actions to this holistic model of the Torah — particularly by refraining from needless destruction of resources both in our personal lives and as members of the “global village” — we can transform this world from a realm of exploitation and divine concealment to a Garden of Eden, where God’s Presence is manifest.

As we learn from the ancient Sefer HaBahir (“Book of Illumination”): “Rabbi Amorai asked, ‘Where is the Garden of Eden?’ And he answered his own question, ‘Right here on Earth!'”[12]

Rabbi Dovid Sears is a teacher, author and book illustrator who since 1997 has directed The Breslov Center for Spiritual Growth, a kiruv organization based in New York.


[1]      Kla”ch Pitchei Chokhmah, Petach 38, cited by Rabbi Mordekhai Shariki, Rekhev Yisrael (“Chariot of Israel,” Jerusalem: Makhon RaMCHaL 1995), section I, chap. 2 (pp. 62-63).
[2]      Ibid. citing Da’at Tevunot (“The Knowing Heart”).
[3]      Avot 5:1.
[4]      Letter Three, The Nineteen Letters, trans. Karin Paritzky, with commentary by Rabbi Joseph Elias (Jerusalem: Feldheim 1995).
[5]      A broad sampling of such material is presented in Canfei Nesharim’s Compendium of Sources in Halacha and the Environment 5766 / 2005, edited by Ora Sheinson and Shai Spetgang.
[6]      Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 155, passim; Mishneh Torah, Hil. Kinyan, Shekhenim 10:2, 11:1.
[7]      TB Berakhot 26b; also cf. Likkutei MoHaRaN II, 1; Malbim on Genesis 24:63.
[8]      Sichot HaRaN 98.
[9]      Genesis Rabbah 10:7; see also Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 44 (79b); Zohar I, 34a, II, 15b, et passim.
[10]    RaMCHaL, Derekh HaShem (“The Way of God”) I, 5:1-2; II, 5:3-4.
[11]    For example, the Baal Shem Tov’s famous parable about the illusory fortress surrounding the King, in which angels are mentioned in context of constrictions of the Divine Light; see Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Noach, ff. 83, s.v. u-pa’am achat amar. Sefer HaBahir (sec. 21, 145) relates the angels to the sefirah of Gevurah and the element of fire.
[12]    Sefer HaBahir 31.

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