INSIGHT

5767 - #05

THE ETHICS OF ROBBERY

In Bereishit 6:11-13, two words are used to explain the evil1 found in humanity that led to its destruction, and to some extent the destruction of the world, through the Flood. One is the word shachat2 which is generally translated as “destroy” or “corrupt”; the second is the word chamas which is generally translated as “violence” or “crime.” The gemara, though, is much more specific in defining the exact wrongdoing expressed by each of these words. T.B. Sanhedrin 57a explains that the root shachat indicates sexual immorality and idolatry. T.B. Sanhedrin 108a explains that the word chamas indicates gezel, robbery.3 It would thus seem that the Flood occurred because of the sins of sexual impropriety, idolatry and robbery. This unique grouping demands some investigation.

            A review of the Biblical text indicates that there was, in fact, a progression in the behaviour of humanity that eventually led to its destruction. First, there was a corruption (shachat) of the land and then the land was filled with chamas. This would also seem to be the understanding of the gemara. In defining chamas as robbery, the gemara actually states that, even though the generation of the Flood was involved in all types of transgressions, it was only when they became involved in robbery that their fate was sealed.4 Viewed as such, we can postulate that, in regard to the generation of the Flood, sexual impropriety and idolatry led to robbery which, specifically, brought forth the punishment of destruction. Interestingly, though, the text continues that God saw the land and its corruption (shachat), specifically that all beings5 corrupted their ways. This would seem to imply that it was the idolatry and, specifically, the sexual impropriety6 that God saw that led Him to render the decision to bring the Flood. Corruption of the world, marked by sexual impropriety and idolatry, led to robbery which sealed the fate of this generation and brought forth this judgment – but even then it was the corruption of the world that was the basis of this judgment. It would seem that it was not specific crimes – be they sexual immorality, idolatry or robbery – that led to the Flood. It was a corrupt method by which humanity related to the world that led to humanity’s destruction. It would seem that this corruption was marked by sexual immorality and idolatry. Yet, it was robbery – not necessarily a sign of corruption but rather a sign of chamas -- that truly indicated the nature of this corruption and decreed this corruption necessitating destruction.

            In Bereishit 6:13, God relays his findings to Noach by again returning to the theme of chamas and stating that the end of beings is approaching because the world is filled with robbery. Again we find movement from shachat to chamas in that the previous verse indicates that God saw shachat but in His statement to Noach, He mentions chamas. But then God does return to the theme of shachat by stating that He will destroy (shachat) the land. In English we would say that: because humanity corrupted the world, God destroyed it, yet that would not fully represent the depth of this statement. The Hebrew root of both words is the same. In essence, what is really being presented is that because humanity acted one way towards the world, God, in response, chose to act similarly – the result being the Flood. Simply, God told humanity, through the Flood, that if you choose not to follow the rules, so will I.

         Following and not following the rules – the laws of nature, both physical and moral – is clearly a major theme of the Flood narrative. It may, in fact, be the major theme of this event. T.B. Sanhedrin 108b states that already seven days before the onslaught of the waters God changed the order of Creation so that, for example, the sun rose in the west and went down in the east. Numerous midrashic and aggadic sources point further to the suspension of normal life, including the rules of nature,7 during the time of the Flood. This indeed would seem to be obvious. How does the dove find vegetation8 when the entire world has just been submerged in water? Most significantly, God does not only promise not to punish humanity in the same manner again but, in Bereishit 8:22, he declares that never again will the normal cycle of existence stop. There are rules of existence. Humanity is called upon to exist within these rules. It was this reality that the generation of the Flood challenged; humanity felt it could go beyond these rules. God’s response was to also ignore the rules, demonstrating that the result can only be destruction.

         With this perspective, the sins of sexual impropriety and idolatry practiced by the generation of the Flood take on a very specific meaning. There are many motivations for sin. Regardless of the motivation for sexual impropriety or idolatry, though, the result is inherently chaos. It is for this reason that sexual immorality and idolatry are the signs of shachat. Nevertheless, in regard to the generation of the Flood, this was also the motivation. They desired to abandon all rules, to remove barriers and declare reality as solely a function of the self. One’s wishes were to be the sole determinant of one’s behaviour; consideration for an external order that may be providing direction was deemed to be unnecessary. The animal and the human are clearly different; there is no realm of connection in mating. This was a truth that Adam9 discovered and recognized. It was such truths that this generation challenged; there can be connection if one simply forms a connection. One can create a world in any manner that one wishes. One is not bound by rules that wish to impose limits upon the person in the name of some order. God’s response was to show the consequences of ignoring rules. Even the One Who can override all rules accepts limits in order to achieve the desired objective.

 While robbery may not inherently reflect chaos, when it emerges from the chaos of shachat, it can actually reflect the greatest concern for lost parameters. In the case of theft, we not only find individuals, rejecting rules, acting against rules, but we find individuals continuously redefining rules. Was Robin Hood a thief or a hero? The answer ultimately depends on the rules of property. Theft, as such, is inherently defined by rules. It is in the case of theft, as such, that we are most easily able to turn good into evil and evil into good. And the power of this chaos is most powerfully stated in the case of robbery, where the thief declares this change in reality and, effectively, his/her right to this property even as the owner is present.

         Sexual immorality and idolatry are the clear signs of the breakdown of order within reality. The flood was a response to the evil of chaos; reality demands rules. Yet, robbery sealed the generation’s fate. It is not only an action that we can rationalize, it is one we can often transform into right. Robbery can, as such, reflect the greatest chaos – the chaos that declares itself order, chamas.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Notes

 

(1) In Bereishit 6:5, the word ra, evil, is used to describe the behaviour of humanity but without further explanation. The later verses, as such, would seem to be explaining this evil and, to some extent, the general nature of evil.

(2) This is the Hebrew root of specific words in these verses.

(3)The Torah distinguishes between two distinct acts of theft, geneiva and gezel. The latter refers to a theft done outside the presence or direct knowledge of the victim, such as a cat- burglary. The former refers to a theft done in the presence of the victim and is generally translated as robbery.

(4)The projection of a time line may not necessarily be found in the literal reading of the gemara but use of a perception of a time line may be the best way of expressing the gemara’s basic thought.

(5)The Hebrew word used is basar, which is usually translated as meat and is found translated as flesh in many translations of this verse. My use of the word “beings” is, indeed, too broad as fish were not destroyed in the Flood.

(6) See Rashi, Bereishit 6:12.

(7) See, for example, Rashi, Bereishit 8:22.

(8) Bereishit 8:11

(9) See Rashi, Bereishit 2:2


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