This week we once again find ourselves reading the famous story of Hashem’s decision to destroy the world and to then rebuild it using Noach and his family as the engine for its renewal. The Torah, in the beginning of the Parsha describes the breakdown of moral and ethical conditions which triggered this decision. “Vatishachet ha’aretz l’fnei haElokim, va’timaleh ha’aretz hamas” (6:11) “And the world became corrupted before Elokim, and the land was filled with hamas”. What precisely was the sin of Dor HaMabul, and why did it warrant such a radical punishment?
If we were to pose this question to most people with even a rudimentary familiarity with the text, they would probably tell us that the world was being punished for stealing. This answer reflects the Gemara in Sanhedrin (108a), quoted by Rashi, which flatly states that the punishment of Dor HaMabul was sealed due to stealing. Of course, once we say that their fate was sealed, the obvious implication is that the punishment was richly deserved for other sins, but the fact that they engaged in hamas meant any possible avenues of Teshuva were closed to them. These other sins are reflected in the word “shichet”, to be corrupted. Rashi understands this corruption as being a combination of sexual immorality and idol worship. If this is the case, then the second half of our original question, why did this sin warrant such a radical punishment, seems to be quite pressing. Is the Gemara suggesting that stealing is worse than idol worship and licentiousness?
We can obviously suggest that the answer is clearly no. The Gemara is not necessarily suggesting that stealing is worse than avoda zara or arayot, but rather that, as we explained above, stealing was the last straw, the action which marked the point of no return. Had they only been guilty of staeling the punishment might not have been nearly as severe.
Of course, by adopting this line of reasoning, we have merely shifted the parameter of our question without really answering it. Why would stealing be viewed as a “dealbreaker” type of sin, more than sins which at first blush would appear to be more severe?
Before addressing the question, it is important to point out that not everyone accepts the Gemara’s interpretation of the passuk. Chizkuni, for example, sees within the word hamas a reference to the three cardinal sins of idol worhip, murder and forbidden sexual behavior. While he demonstrates that this interpretation can be supported by various passukim in Nach, his explanation remains a novel one. (Given that the passuk that he quotes to support his contention that hamas is referring to immoral behavior (Yirmiyahu 54:35) could arguably be interpreted as referring to stealing, this is not surprising). Even Chizkuni might not accept this explanation, as in the beginning of his commentary he quotes a midrash, which we will return to, which seeks to contrast between gezel and hamas.
If we stick with the commonly accepted explanation of hamas, however, then our question remains. What is it in the nature of stealing which makes it the behavior that seals the fate of an entire society, sentencing it to destruction?
One possibility, might be that hamas, while technically meaning stealing, is in fact referring to something else entirely. Ralbag suggests that the stealing that is being referenced here is in fact an extension of the immoral sexual behavior which characterized Dor HaMabul. A society which was awash in immorality had no compunction in using any means to further that behavior. Women became an object for gratification, and were routinely snatched and abducted in order to satisfy someone’s whims or desires. The stealing referred to by hamas then is not petty larceny but rather kidnapping on a societal level.
The problem with this approach is that while it technically preserves the definition presented by the Gemara in Sanhedrin, it in fact robs the Gemara of its force and vitality. It is not stealing which finalizes this generation’s fate, but the sin of immorality. Why then does the Gemara tell us that it was gezel which ultimately precipitated the destruction? In truth, Ralbag himself seems attuned to this point, and suggests that the character trait of stealing, once established through kidnapping, then seeped down into other areas of social interaction. This addition, however, is unsatisfying on two levels. Firstly, Ralbag does not suggest that it seeped down to all strata of society (nor could he; to do so would be to backtrack from the initial claim that it was immorality which caused the destruction). If so, then why was gezel the cause of the punishment? Furthermore, even the general larceny which had become part of the societal fabric was the cause of the flood, all we have accomplished is to return to our original question, namely, why is hamas viewed so negatively?
Chizkuni quotes the Midrash (Breishit Rabba 31:5-6) which distinguishes between gezel and hamas. Hamas refers to larceny of items valued above a peruta, the smallest currency of any value, while gezel is theft of items of even lesser value. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch sees the difference between gezel and hamas in slightly different terms. Gezel refers to larceny which can be adjudicated in court. Hamas is thievery so petty that it can’t be legislated. At first blush, both the Midrash and Rav Hirsch’s explanation seems to strengthen our question. For such a pittance a society was destroyed?
Rav Hirsch’s resolves the question on both his explanation and that of the Midrash, as well as our original question. Rav Hirsch explains that the monetary value is not the issue here. Rather, the question is what this theft says about society. A theft that can be adjudicated, while harmful, ultimately poses no threat to the host culture. We have the tools to combat and ultimately eradicate such behavior. Society, however, has no defense against petty larceny, no tools for confronting it and uprooting it. As a result, it steadily corrupts the society, causing it to rot from within. Such a society will ultimately collapse. Ironically, hamas causes the destruction of society not because of any grandiose nature but because of the precisely opposite phenomena. It is the banality of hamas, its seemingly minor and unimportant nature, which makes it such a corrosive element to the cohesion of a society, ultimately leading to its downfall.
Ramban suggests that there is a fundamental distinction between stealing and immorality or idol worship. As problematic as the latter two behaviors might be, one could argue that there is nothing inherently evil about them. They both represent behaviors which are forbidden because of a higher moral code. Without that code it is not self evident that these behaviors should be forbidden. Theft, on the other hand, is understood by all societies to be unethical. As a result, this culture, by dint of having adopted theft as a basic principle, sacrificed its right to continue to exist as a society. Seforno builds on this theme when he points out that in Noach’s world everyone cheated everyone else. As a result the land gave its bounty to thieves. There was no choice, when everyone is cheating everyone else, when such behavior becomes the standard in society, then that polity has sacrificed the right to exist.
It is instructive to contrast the fate of Dor HaMabul with two other societies which are torn asunder in Sefer Breishit, Dor HaHaflaga and the Sodom. Midat Sodom, the characteristic of Sodom, is “Mine is mine and yours is mine”, a lack of respect for the personal property of others. This society, which also internalized values that were inimical to the natural order of things, could not be redeemed and was ultimately destroyed. Dor Hahaflaga, in its quest to build a tower soaring to the heavens is in fact signaling its intent to rebel against Hashem. Yet, as Rashi notes (11:9), they are bonded by a sense of love and loyalty, of unity and respect. As such, and in direct contrast to Dor HaMabul, Hashem disperses them rather than destroying them. A society can overcome rejection of even a divinely imposed moral code. When it rejects the most basic principles of common bonds, however, it must inevitably collapse and die.
Rav Michael Susman