“The Fate of Humankind is Sealed”
by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald
In this week’s parasha, parashat Noah, we read of the deluge that inundated the world, ending human life on earth except for the eight people who were aboard the ark with Noah.
The final verses of parashat Bereshith speak of the corruption of humankind. The Torah reports (Genesis 6:5), that G-d saw that the wickedness of humankind upon the earth was great, and that all of human thoughts were directed toward doing evil. G-d regretted having made humankind, and announced, Genesis 6:7,
אֶמְחֶה אֶת הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָאתִי מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה מֵאָדָם עַד בְּהֵמָה עַד רֶמֶשׂ וְעַד עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם, כִּי
נִחַמְתִּי כִּי עֲשִׂיתִם, I will blot out humankind whom I created, from off the face of the earth–-from man to animal, to creeping things, and to birds of the sky; for I have reconsidered My having made them.
In the opening verses of parashat Noah, Genesis 6:9, we are introduced to Noah as a righteous and perfect man in his generation who walked with G-d. The Torah recalls, once again, the terrible corruption of humankind. Genesis 6:11, וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ לִפְנֵי הָאֱ-לֹקִים, וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ חָמָס, Now the earth had become corrupted before G-d; and the earth had become filled with robbery. G-d determines to punish the evil people, Genesis 6:13, וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ-לֹקִים לְנֹחַ, קֵץ כָּל בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי כִּי מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס מִפְּנֵיהֶם, וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם אֶת הָאָרֶץ, G-d said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with robbery through them; and behold, I am about to destroy them from the earth.” G-d then instructs Noah to begin constructing the Ark out of gopher wood.
Apparently, the sin that sealed the fate of the generation of Noah was חָמָס, robbery and thievery. Rabbi Johanan, in tractate Sanhedrin 108a, states: “Come and see how awesome is the power of thievery (חָמָס). After all, the generation of the flood transgressed all of the sins, but the decree was not issued until they began to engage in thievery. As it is written, Genesis 6:13, ‘The end of all flesh has become before Me, for the earth is filled with robbery through them.’” Similarly, the Midrash Rabbah 38:6 states, “the generation of the flood was immersed in thievery. Therefore, nothing survived.”
The question is asked widely among the commentaries: Why did the sin of thievery bring about the fateful decree of total destruction? After all, the people were corrupt in many aspects of life, perhaps all aspects of life. They were, in fact, particularly sexually corrupt with both humans and animals.
Ethics of our Fathers (Avot 1:17) notes that the world exists on three things, “Justice, truth and peace.” The crime of thievery however, leads to great interpersonal discord, ultimately resulting in an upheaval of the entire social order, making justice impossible. Without the fundamental structure of justice, the earth could not survive, and had to be destroyed.
The Meloh Ha’Omer states that our compassionate G-d never immediately punishes a sinner with death (Midrash Rabbah, Leviticus 17:4). Usually, Divine punishment is meted out first by striking one’s wealth and wherewithal. However, if the loss of wealth does not impact upon one’s wicked behavior to bring about repentance, then the evil person is punished physically. Thus, we see that a person’s wealth and wherewithal can serve as a protective atonement for one’s soul, but only when the wealth belongs to the evil perpetrator. However, if it is stolen wealth, it can never serve as atonement.
Rabbi Joseph Shaul Nathanson, cited in Eesh L’ray’ay’hoo, offers the following parable: A stork once stood by the river hunting for food. Sighting its prey, the bird inserted its beak into the water and pulled out a fish, ready to devour it. The fish mournfully began crying for its life: “Please, don’t kill me, I am one of G-d’s creations.” Upon opening its mouth to plead for its life, the fish actually dropped a smaller fish that it was about to swallow. The stork said, “Such a hypocrite you are. You eat your brother and plead with me not to devour you?” So, says Rabbi Nathanson, the people of the generation of the flood were truly worthy of punishment for the many sins that they had committed. Yet, G-d’s compassion held sway. However, when He saw that the people were stealing one from another, their pleas for mercy were ignored, since they themselves had rejected the pleas of all the victims of their theft.
The Ramban writes that thievery is a rational law of nature, which should be intuitively acknowledged by all as sinful. After all, since no one wishes to be victimized by the loss of property, everyone should strictly refrain from stealing. That is why a thief is so broadly detested in the eyes of G-d and by society.
The Da’at Sofrim also argues that the fate of humankind was sealed because of חָמָס, thievery, because it is such a logical precept. The fact that the people were so thoroughly immersed in thievery indicates that the generation of the flood had lost its capacity for rational thought. Engaging in such wholesale thievery implies that the people of Noah’s generation no longer had any chance of returning humankind to morality. Despite their many other sins, it was חָמָס Chah’mas that sealed their fate.
Apparently, the behavior of the people of the generation of the flood progressively deteriorated. When they first became corrupt, they engaged in sins covertly before G-d, such as sexual immorality and idolatry. But later, when the earth had become filled with robbery, their sinfulness and evil became obvious to all. Those who sin privately often still have a sense of right and wrong. Hence, the need for privacy. But once people develop a habit of sinning, immoral behavior becomes more broadly accepted, soon becoming normative, resulting in public and shameless illicitness..
Thus we see that חָמָס, thievery, sealed their fate.
May you be blessed.