Atlanta Kollel 2007
Shabbat Shalom to everyone: There is a very popular issue in this week’s Parasha which deals with Noach’s character. Chazal debate whether he was completely righteous or not. Today, I would like to focus on another very basic and fundamental topic that we usually don’t pay attention to it: the topic of the robbery. Everyone is familiar with the following verses:
ותשחת הארץ לפני האלוהים ותמלא הארץ חמס… כי מלאה הארץ חמס מפניהם והנני משחיתם את ארץ.
“And the world was corrupted before God and it was full of robbery … for the world was full of robbery through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”
Both “Gezel” and “Chamas” refer to robbery, but “Chamas” is a more severe type of theft.
I would like to ask a very basic question: what is so terrible about stealing? In tractate Sanhedrin, Chazal present many negative opinions about what really were the sins of the generation of the flood and why the punishment was so severe. Rabbi Yochanan commented in his famous statement that their death sentence wasn’t final until they began to commit the sin of Gezel, which is robbery. Rashi quotes this interpretation as well as the source.
There is another Midrash in the Talmud Yerushalmi which also appears in the Yalkut Shimoni: It says that God said to Noach:
קץ כל בשר בא לפניי – הגיע הזמן לקצץ אותם, להפוך אותם לאדמת בתה – כמו עצים ושיחים נמוכים כי מלאה הארץ חמס מפניהם וכו’ – חמס שווה פרוטה וגזל חצי פרוטה. לאחד היתה קופת תורמוסין קופסה עם תבואה כל אחד היה בא ונוטל פחות מחצי פרוטה כך שחברו לא יכול להוציא ממנו את מה שלקח לו – כך שמלאה כל הארץ חמס – האנשים אשר עליה שגרמו לכך. אמר הקב”ה אתם עשיתם שלא כשורה גם אני אעשה לכם כך.
“The end of all of life has come before me. The time has arrived to cut them down, to return the land to a pristine time when there were only trees and short shrubs “because the land if full of theft, etc” To be liable for the sin of “Hamas” one must steal something that is worth a “pruta” and to be liable for the sin of “Gezel” one must steal something that is worth half of a “pruta.” In the generation of the flood, one would have a box of lupins, a box of grains. Everyone would come and take less then half of a “pruta” from someone else This is how the person who was stolen from was not able to recover his stolen objects. This was what the verse means when it says “The whole world was full of robbery,” meaning, the people who caused this. God said to them, “You behaved improperly and I will do the same to you.”
Here, we translate the word “Keitz” not as end but as cut down. God says he will cut them down so that they are like low shrubs. Why? According to the midrash “Chamas” is stealing something that is worth at least one “Pruta”, whereas “Gezel” is taking something that is worth at least one half of a “Prutah”. I would like to tell a story related to this point.
Let us return to the words of Rabbi Yochanan who says that the people committed many sins in this generation, but they were only punished for robbery. What is so terrible about robbery? Is it worse than murder or adultery? To make things worse, we even see that Rashi agrees that adultery is a grave sin. He says:
כל בשר בא לפניי – כל מקום שאתה מוצא זנות ועבודה זרה אנדרלמויה באה לעולם והורגת טובים ורעים
“All flesh has come before me” – Everywhere that you find promiscuity and idolatry, chaos come to the world and kills the good and bad.
He claims in his interpretation of the verse that wherever ever you find adultery and idolatry you will find chaos that destroys everyone. This is different from Rashi’s previous comment that quotes the statement of R. Yochanan, as you remember, that the worst sin is robbery. Which one is it? We will answer this later.
What then is it about robbery that makes it worse than all other sins, so terrible that God decided to destroy the world? There must be some important moral lesson that we can derive from this Midrash about stealing.
I would like to show you three ideas from the early commentators – the Ramban, Seforno, and a later commentator, the Radak and then I will explain the contradiction that I spoke of in the beginning.
Ramban – ר’ משה בן נחמן gives us a simple explanation: This is “מצוה מושכלת” – a rational mitzvah which we can understand on its own without any prophet’s warning. The problem with his explanation is that we can understand rationally the meanings of adultery and idolatry as well.
Seforno discusses the issue by referring to the economy. He describes the generation of the flood as a society in which everyone stole from each other. The owners steal from the tenant farmers by not paying their salary and the tenant farmers cheat the owners by doing incomplete work or stealing crops secretly. A situation arises that the land gives all of its produce to thieves. A society can’t exist unless it is productive. People sell and buy products, which is a basic principle in an economy, and especially in a free-market economy. When everyone prefers his personal comfort in his life at the expense of others by stealing, he produces nothing, and then other people steal from others to get what they want. Societies can’t afford themselves a situation like this.
Radak – ר’ דוד קמחי in his commentary to book of Isaiah, in two places, continues this line of thinking by discussing law and order in society. In Isaiah (59:15) it is written:
ותהי האמת נעדרת וסר מרע משתולל וירא ה’ וירע בעינו כי אין משפט
“And truth is absent; and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey; and God saw and it displeased him that there was no judgment”
Most likely, the verse is discussing the situation of the evil deeds of the Jews approximately thirty years before the destruction of the first Temple, the period of Isaiah. Radak says that if there is no law and order then societies can’t function. He quotes the statement of R. Yochanan about their death sentence being final due to theft. If everyone lives off of everyone else, there is no guarantee of the rights of the individual. There is chaos, society turns into a game of survival, whoever is stronger wins, and everyone is each other’s enemy. It is clear that a society like this will not endure for a long time. Therefore, if there isn’t any law and order, a society can’t exist or further develop. In Isaiah (57:17) it says:
“בעוון בצעו קצפתי ואכהו הסתר ואקציף וילך שובב בדרכי לבו”
“For the iniquity of his covetousness was I angry, and struck him; I hid myself, and was angry, and he went on perversely in the way of his heart.
Radak explains that even though according to the Torah, a thief does not receive capital punishment, he commits a great sin because over time, stealing spreads to most of society. The result is that he destroys the order of the society. Therefore, people have a great motivation to prevent him from stealing.
The author of “מלוא העומר” (ר’ אליהו מזרחי – הרא”ם?) Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi resolves the previous mentioned contradiction in Rashi by saying that adultery can include stealing in specific cases. For example, a man rapes a married woman, which besides being a sin of promiscuity is also a violation of her individual rights. If the woman has children from her attacker, her children are considered “Mamzerim,” strangers. Another result is that the husband of the woman financially supports children who are not biologically his own (assuming he is not aware of this). These children will inherit possessions and estates do not really belong to them. Furthermore, the order of the world is disturbed because people won’t know whose children really belong to whom. The world will not be populated as it should be because people won’t take responsibility for their children and from a genetic perspective, this situation will likely cause genetic diseases due to incest. The problem that brings the world to an anarchic state of theft is an overemphasis on the concerns of the individual, for his basic rights like eating, drinking, clothing, a roof over one’s head, etc. As we have understood until now, it is important to have a balance between the freedom of an individual and his interests and the interests of the community and society. In general, systems of law are supposed to keep this delicate balance. When they recommend to Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh from Berlin to be the Rabbi of the city, many of his relatives told him that it is not worth it to accept the job because there are many enlightened Jews there and he won’t feel comfortable. After a lot of thought, the Rabbi decided to send a messenger to investigate the situation there. Originally, he thought he would send one of his relatives who was distinguished in Talmud study and feared sin, but at the last minute, he changed his mind and sent another Jew, one who was knowledgeable about the modern world and enlightened values. When his relatives wondered why they didn’t send one of them, he told them that after the flood, Noah first sent a crow, not a dove, to see if the world had dried up and there were no wicked people left. Since, if he would have sent the dove, it wouldn’t be able to investigate the truth. The dove is symbol of purity and uprightness. It wouldn’t have been able to recognize and relate to wickedness because of its purity and the wicked would have definitely been able to stand up in the face of the righteous. Therefore, he first sent the crow, the impure bird because it knows all of the virtues and defects of the wicked. They would have definitely felt at home with the crow and this is how it would be able figure out what is really going on.
In my humble opinion, there is a way to strike a balance between the individual and the society. We must avoid on the one hand becoming a thief who uses all sorts of daily tricks and deceitful acts, (the behavior of the crow), and on the other hand becoming a person who values and cares about every little thing, constantly being on top of everything to the point where one can’t deal with life. The way to strike the balance is to combine the qualities of the crow and the qualities of dove within us. We must be perfectly moral and be considered a dove in the eyes of others, our fellow men and society, but we must also know how to be a crow, caring about the basic existential interests of all of us, not allowing anyone to trick us. (By guarding against the cheating of individuals and their possessions, indirectly, one also is caring for the society.) .