In this week’s parasha, parashat Noach , the Torah begins to describe how mankind had fallen into such an abyss of negativity that the entire generation, with the exception of the righteous Noach and his family, needed to be washed away in the great mikvah of the flood. This mabul served to purify the world for a new start, but what was it that the Generation of the Flood were doing that necessitated such a severe corrective response?
The Torah describes the state of the Mankind with the opening of the parasha as follows : “ Vetishachet haaretz lifne ihaelokim, vetimaleh ha-aretz chamas”- “And the earth had become corrupt before G-d, and the earth had become filled with chamas”.
The word ‘Vetishachet’, which we translated here as ‘corruption’, is in fact the same word which means the ‘destruction’ of something. When something or someone is so imbedded in immorality it or he/she is referred to in Torah terminology as Mushchat: destroyed , contaminated, spoiled, perverted, debased. Rashi, based on the Gemara, explains that the ‘corruption’ here specifically refers to idol worship and immorality in the realm of relationships. These two realms of negativity are seen as essentially destructive, perverting a person to the point of utter degradation. The second word used in the pasuk is Chamas (rather ironic). Rashi, again based on the Gemara, explains that this word refers to Gezel (stealing) and that the sentence of that generation’s destruction was actually sealed on account of the stealing.
What is so destructive about stealing that would warrant the world’s destruction? Let us try and understand its severity and see what deeper messages we can draw from this into our lives.
Before we begin to understand the deeper negativity involved here, let’s first clarify what we mean by stealing. Think about the following. Imagine you decide to go for a late night stroll one Sunday evening, and you pass by the local Jewelry store on the corner of your street. In the window you notice a stunning array of fine gold and silver jewelry. The streets are empty and all the shop owners have closed up for the night. Lying next to you on the foot path is a large brick left over from some abandoned building site. Would it ever occur to you to pick up that brick and hurl it through the shiny windows of the jewelry shop, take a few thousand dollars worth of goods and run? I’m sure not. And not just because it’s not worth it, or because you might get caught, but because it is just not in your realm of possibility. It is so far beneath you, so obviously wrong. You wouldn’t even contemplate such an act. Stealing is something that only criminals would do. Right?
The truth is however that there is more to stealing than one might think. Imagine you are in your local fruit store or supermarket. You want to buy some grapes but while you shop you are a little hungry. So you pop a few of the grapes in your mouth as you work your way through the fruit section. When you come to weigh the grapes in the package they will weigh ever so slightly less and thus cost less because of the few grapes in your stomach. Is that stealing? What about borrowing someone’s possessions without permission? What about making a personal call or personal photocopies on your workplace’s budget? Or spending some time at ‘work’ on Facebook?
The Gemara and Jewish law in general go into great detail dealing with the laws of monetary matters and stealing. Many do not realize that instances that the average ‘decent’ person would see as trivial are in fact cases of actual theft. Torah sources even speak of stealing another person’s sleep through making unreasonable loud noises at unreasonable times and stealing other’s privacy through peering inquisitively in through the windows of their home, car or perhaps even Facebook profiles. The truth is that without a thorough knowledge of the laws of theft, the average person could potentially be stealing numerous times throughout their life.
Gezel (stealing) can assume very subtle forms. A student was once walking with his Rabbi and, while standing in conversation, the student absentmindedly plucked a leaf off a nearby tree (private property). The Rabbi kindly rebuked him, reminding him that even taking a seemingly insignificant amount of someone else’s property is still considered stealing[i]. In fact the Midrash says that the Chamas found in our verse above actually refers to ‘insignificant’ ‘trivial’ stealing of less than the value of a pruta, which is an amount so insignificant that the courts do not force a thief to return such a sum[ii]. Nevertheless, the person has still stolen.
The Zohar [iii]frighteningly describes how after a person dies, he goes through seven Judgments before arriving at his eternal rest. He may pass through the judgments successfully, but if at the end he is found to be guilty of stealing in any of its various forms without having repaid the damage, the angels that guard the entrance to Gan Eden will not permit him to enter.
What is it that makes stealing such a negative and corruptive act? The Chofetz Chaim, Zt”l, writes that Gezel is deeply related to Sheker (falsehood) and Mirma (deceit). Emet (Truth) has clear boundaries. Falsehood on the other hand is by nature unrestrained. Truth is well defined while falsehood is any alternative to the truth, as vast as one’s imagination may stretch. Stealing involves seeing other’s rightful possessions as if they are within your bounds, your circle. The one who steals has a false, bloated sense of their own perimeter. They extend and spread themselves into other people’s time, possessions, money, privacy etc. Stealing therefore reveals a deep perversion of truth within a person.
From another angle, stealing is rooted in taking. Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, Zt”l, famously describes how people can be essentially driven by two major forces – giving or taking. The taker is one who looks at every aspect of life and this world and thinks “what can I get out of this”. The giver on the other hand thinks “What can I contribute”. One who steals reveals his ‘taking’ nature. Because Hashem created the world and continually sustains it through the energy of giving, a world of ‘takers’ is a world destined for self-destruction.
The Generations of the flood were steeped in negativity, but it was the Chamas, the Gezel, which sealed their fate and required the world’s greatest mikvah experience. As takers, as people who are detached from truth and live in an imaginary world where everything is ours for the taking, we take ourselves out of reality and our possibility of fulfilling our purpose in this world is undermined. May we therefore merit to be counted among those of ‘clean hands and pure hearts’[iv], expressing ourselves as givers and people of truth, building the world and contributing to its purity rather than its corruption.
[i] This story is brought in Rabbi Pliskin’s “Love your Neighbour” on this week’s parasha.
[ii] Bereishit Rabba 30, noted in ‘Love your Neighbour”
[iii] Quoted by the Chofetz Chaim as brought in the Sefer ‘Inspiration and Insight’ by Rav Yehudah Zev Segal Zt”l
[iv] The words of the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva, in his article on this week’s parasha, based on the verse in Tehillim “who may ascend the mountain of Hashem? . . . One with clean hands and purity of heart . . .”.