With regard to Creation the Mishnah states:1 “The world was created by means of 10 [Divine] utterances. What does this teach us, for indeed, it could have been created with one utterance? But it was to repay the wicked who destroy the world which was created by 10 utterances, and to bestow ample reward upon the righteous who sustain the world which was created by 10 utterances.”

Our Sages ask:2 G‑d is the essence of goodness, and “the nature of he that is good is to act in a kindly manner.”3 How then can we say that G‑d created the world with 10 utterances so as to “repay the wicked who destroy the world which was created by 10 utterances”?

This will be understood in light of the remark of the commentators4 that the Mishnah uses the term “to repay” rather than “to punish.” This is because the intent of the Mishnah is not to imply that G‑d seeks revenge; rather He desires to “lengthen His anger, and take back that which is His — in a manner of payment.”

This means that there is no intent here to punish the sinner for the purpose of Divine retribution. Rather the punishment is such that it enables the sinner to “repay” the debt he owes for his evil actions.

The explanation is as follows. Every Jewish soul descends to this world with a Divine mission to transform it into a dwelling fit for G‑d.5 This is accomplished through the performance of mitzvos. However, he who sins and strays from the path of righteousness becomes “indebted” to G‑d and must “repay” Him.

This repayment is accomplished through teshuvah , by means of which an individual rectifies all the deficiencies that he brought about through his sins. The act of teshuvah thus serves to “repay” a sinner’s debt.

This then is the meaning of the phrase “to repay the wicked.” G‑d demands that the wicked repay the debt they owe Him by doing teshuvah. Parenthetically, this is the general intent of all punishment: the purpose is not punishment per se, but intended to lead sinners to teshuvah.6

This provides us with a deeper understanding of the next part of the statement “(to repay the wicked) who destroy the world which was created by 10 utterances:” Even the fact that the wicked “destroy the world which was created by 10 utterances” has a positive side.

This is in consonance with the aspect of the elevation achieved through teshuvah , by means of which an individual becomes “a new entity”7 and builds a “new world,” for as a result of teshuvah his spiritual service is now performed with new vigor.

“Repaying the wicked who destroy the world which was created by 10 utterances” thus means that through teshuvah, those who were wicked destroy and subsume the limitations of the world, limitations that resulted from its being created via 10 utterances rather than with one. For teshuvah reveals G‑d’s transcendent ability within the world — an ability that goes beyond the natural limitations implied by the 10 utterances.

The entire order of the Mishnah can now be understood: It begins by stating: “The world was created by means of 10 [Divine] utterances. What does this come to teach us, for indeed, it could have been created with one utterance?”

The Mishnah here explains the two possible manners of creation: a) the limited manner, through 10 utterances; b) the unlimited manner, in which it could have been created with only one utterance.

In line with this, the Mishnah continues to explain two kinds of spiritual service: a) “to repay the wicked who destroy the world which was created by 10 utterances,” i.e., the superior service of teshuvah that is possible because the world could have been created with one utterance; and b) “to bestow ample reward upon the righteous who sustain the world which was created by 10 utterances,” i.e., the service of the righteous, by means of which the world is strengthened, as it was indeed created with 10 utterances.

Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. XXX, pp. 1-7.