Parshat Noah: One small grain

When corruption becomes the norm, even if the corruption is expressed in very small amounts, the norm is unbearable and brings about destruction.

Noah and the flood (photo credit: John Martin)
Noah and the flood
(photo credit: John Martin)
This Shabbat, as we listen to the Torah reading, we will hear the description of the greatest global tragedy that ever was: the Great Flood. The world was completely erased by flooding, with one single family saved by hiding in an ark, along with representatives of the entire living world.
Why did G-d decide to destroy the whole world and “create” it anew?
The Torah describes the reason for this in several words: “And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with robbery. And God saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with robbery through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.’” (Genesis 6, 11-13) We understand that that generation was especially corrupt. The world was so filed with violence that there was no choice but to turn a page to one that had no memory of that corruption. But what was that corrupt behavior that brought about this terrible result? G-d promised not to bring about another tragedy on the world, as it says, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.” But, we must look at the sins of this corrupt generation in order to understand what was so terrible about their deeds, so we can learn what we must avoid.
The sages of the Talmud understood from the verses above what the sin was that brought about the flood: Rabbi Yohanan said: Come and see the power of corruption, since the generation of the flood transgressed everything yet their judgment was not signed until they began to steal. (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Sanhedrin, 108, 1) Robbery and moral corruption. This was the great sin that could not be repaired other than to begin anew.
And what sort of stealing was it? Didn’t this generation have any sort of law and order that protected people’s possessions? Our sages brought an example of this unsolvable robbery.
Rabbi Hanina said, “‘Corruption’ is not worth a pruta, and ‘robbery’ that is worth a pruta, and this what the people of the flood would do, one would take out his full bag of grains and another would come and take less than the value of one pruta, and another would come and take less than the value of one pruta, until he could not get it returned by law.” (Midrash Raba, Breishit 31) The words of Rabbi Hanina describe a man who goes to the market to sell legumes, and while he is standing and trying to honestly earn his living, a man comes over to him and takes one grain, one small grain, and eats it. Afterward, another man come and takes another grain. And then another and another, until he has nothing left to sell and he returns to his home crushed.
If a man had come over and taken a large quantity of grains without paying, the seller could have sued him and won. But for one grain, it is not worth getting into a whole legal process, and thus the man became impoverished with no one he could sue.
Is this the corrupt behavior that has no solution other than erasing the entire world and “creating” it from the beginning? This type of plunder expresses a seriously corrupt mentality, one much more serious than what we consider moral corruption.
When a man is tempted and steals from his friend, he is aware of the wrongness of his deed, but inside himself he knows that most people do not steal, and that this one isolated act that he did – as wrong as it is – will still allow for the basic, honest existence of society. But when there is an accepted norm that it is all right to take another’s possession without payment, even if the plunder is small in quantity, one little grain, the entire society’s value structure collapses and the society cannot continue to exist. One man steals a grain, another steals a grain, and another and another, until the robbed man has nothing left. This kind of behavior does not allow for society to exist.
This is the important moral lesson that Parshat Noah comes to teach: when corruption becomes the norm, even if the corruption is expressed in very small amounts, the norm is unbearable and brings about destruction.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.