The people of Noah’s generation were known as a sinful generation. Yet it was a particular sin which did them in.Their sins included idol worship and bestiality. In fact, the relations between Man and Beast were so prevalent, that a full YEAR after being on the ark, when Noah sent out the male raven bird to find land, the bird only circled the ark. The Talmud tells us that the reason is that the raven was worried that Noah would kill him and take the female raven as his wife!
Yet, it was not due to bestiality that the entire world was destroyed. G-d clearly explains His reasons:
G-d said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with ‘hamas’ because of them… (Genesis 6:13)
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040 – 1105) explains the word “hamas” as meaning “robbery”. People were stealing from each other, and it was ingrained into society. Everyone stole from everyone else.
While most people would correctly assume that bestiality and idol worship are more severe sins compared to stealing, G-d has patience with people who commit these sins, and He will wait for them to repent.
But G-d has no patience for people who steal – especially small amounts, which is what the generation at Noah’s time was doing. Why is stealing a small amount much worse? Imagine two people in an old-fashioned bank. The first is at the teller, and the teller has to excuse herself for a moment – leaving her drawer filled with cash within easy reach of this man. The second is sitting at the desk of the bank manager, who also has to excuse himself for a moment, leaving his cup filled with paper clips within easy reach of this other man. While it is forbidden to steal in both cases, one can understand the urge to steal the hundreds of dollars in the first case, and how difficult it might be to withhold. But in the second case, withholding from stealing some paper clips is something that anyone could do, so if this second person doesn’t hold himself back, he has done something worse than the first person who may have stolen something of significantly more value.
Noah’s generation stole small items and justified the theft (“it is only worth a penny” or perhaps “everyone is doing it, so what’s the big deal if I join in, too”). When one justifies theft, it becomes nearly impossible to atone for it.
Unfortunately, we are seeing similar theft in our societies, as bored teenagers form flash mobs which raid 7-Eleven stores, with each person stealing a small item such as a soda or a candy bar. The owner is then helpless, as the police won’t even try to catch the fifty teens who raided the store, and even if they did, the cost to recover $1.25 from each person would be too great:
The attitude of many great Jews is the complete opposite of this. They go out of their way to ensure that nothing that has even a scent of theft comes into their possession.
Rabbi Yisroel Brog tells over an incident that he heard from his Rabbi, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik: His father, The Brisker Rov (1886-1959), was teaching a class in his home and his watch stopped working. One of his children went upstairs to the bedroom and found a watch from a sibling on the dresser and proudly brought it to his father. But his father looked at it and asked, “Where did you get this?” When he understood that this son was trying to give him his sibling’s watch which was borrowed without permission, he got all excited and demanded that the watch be taken away from him, as it was potentially stolen. The excuse of “if my brother had been there he would have jumped at the opportunity to lend a watch to his father” was irrelevant to the Brisker Rov, as the Rov didn’t want to be associated with any object that even had a question of theft.
Rabbi Brog told another story about his father-in-law: Before the wedding, the groom was promised a gold watch, and his father-in-law to-be bought this watch for this purpose. But before the gift was presented, the future father-in-law died, and the watch became part of his estate. All the children said, “Take the watch!” but the groom refused because some of the children were below bar mitzvah, and as such Jewish law precludes them from gifting their possessions to someone else. The groom waited until the last child turned thirteen, at which time he confirmed with all the children that they were giving up the watch freely to him. This groom didn’t want to be party to anything that even resembled theft.
Too many people today are not careful with theft. Let us all try to work our best to at least avoid theft of the small things – things that we don’t need to survive and things which are easy enough to buy with our own pocket change. Let us not become like the generation of Noah!