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What the Destruction of the World Can Teach Us About Human Relations

Posted on י״ז במרחשון ה׳תשע״א (October 25, 2010) | in Noach | by

The passuk at the beginning of parashat Noach tells us:

ויאמר אלהים לנח, קץ כל בשר בא לפני — כי מלאה הארץ חמס, מפניהם והנני משחיתם, את-הארץ. (בראשית ו:יג)

And the Lord said to Noach, “The end of all flesh comes before me, for the earth is filled with violence through them, and behold I will destroy them with the earth.” (Bereshit 6:13)

God made the decision to finally put an end to it all. “Mankind had a nice run,” He tells us, “but with their base mortal ways they have gone too far, and it’s over. It has come time to remake the whole world and try again. And this time, I’ll let them have hamburgers.”

There’s a looming question we have to confront though, and that is the following: what did they do? What could mankind have possible done to force God to make this sort of decision? We are students of history, and we have seen periods of human history where humanity hit severely low points. But nothing has ever driven Hashem to reconsider human existence! (Except, of course, for the contents of our parasha) So we must ask, what were they doing?

There is a response from the commentators, and one answer will serve as our focus. On our passuk, Rashi teaches us:

לא נחתם גזר דינם אלא על הגזל

The decree was not sealed except for theft.

This is a little startling. Rashi himself let us know that murder and sexual impropriety were rampant as well! The immorality of the Generation of the Flood must have been boundless; who knows what else was going on down there? And this is where God draws the line? Thievery??

There is a small flurry amongst the super commentators on Rashi to answer our question. The Hannukat HaTorah comes to explain what Rashi meant: “the Generation of the Flood would only steal amounts less than a shaveh prutah, the value of a prutah.” All mitzvot have a shiur, a measurement, attached to them. In order to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah there is a minimum threshold you must eat in order to qualify. Similarly, in order to violate a mitzvah (on a Torah level) you must overcome the threshold.1 The shiur for stealing is a shaveh prutah. So what’s that exactly? The prutah was the smallest coin in the Ancient world (some nations didn’t even mint single prutot). On today’s copper market, a prutah would trade for about 29% of one cent. Given that knowledge, it sounds like the Generation of the Flood didn’t do anything wrong!

What we have to know before understanding the Hannukat HaTorah is that a shaveh prutah is so small that values smaller than it do not follow the normal rules of ownership. Therefore, a theft of a value smaller than a shaveh prutah is not subject to legal proceedings. A court in halakhah cannot try such a thief; they cannot even review the case.

Given that information, we can now understand the true crime of the Generation of the Flood. They were not responsible for merely abrogating the legal system, but for entirely subverting it. They knew the minimum shiur so they stole less than that, and in that way they did not have to worry about being convicted. They didn’t even need to keep their act secret, since the victim could not even take legal action! This was a world not just lacking in morality, but totally abusing it. Therefore, some translate hamas instead of “violence” as “lawlessness.” (go figure) Man thought if they subverted the law they would pass unscathed, but they didn’t realize that their immoral actions were still meaningful to God.

What’s the take away for us? In most of our relationships there is a tit for tat. I do this favor for you, I expect this and that in return. You’ve taken this from me, you owe me this and that in recompense. And if something happens beneath the minimum shiur it goes unnoticed.

But sometimes we have closer relationships where there is no minimum shiur. The best of friends, parents and children, husband and wife. And in this type of relationship, a damage beneath the minimum shiur is still painful. And conversely, a favor done still beneath the minimum shiur is meaningful, and on the flip, must be recognized. We should all be fortunate enough to recognize the acts in our lives that are less than a shaveh prutah.

[cross-posted on divreidavid]

  1. Thank you to Shaul Seidler-Feller for noting that we pasken that hatzi-shiur is still assur even on a Torah level, albeit in a qualitatively different way. Please note that employing shiurim is a terrible way to get out of intentionally performing issurim for a number of reasons, one of which is included in the continuation of this dvar torah.
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