The Roots of Evil
What would it take for the entire world to be condemned to destruction?
What heinous sins would society have to commit for Hashem to decide to
wipe it out and start over again? We do not have to look far for the
answer. In this week’s Torah portion, the world is inundated by the Great
Flood, its cities, its institutions, its people, even its animals, all
swept away. Only the hand-picked passengers on Noah’s ark were allowed to
survive. What brought this on?
The Torah gives a lurid account of the level of depravity to which society
had fallen, widespread idolatry, promiscuity and adultery so pervasive
that even the animal kingdom was perverted, the total collapse of moral
standards, the degeneracy and the shamelessness. And yet, the Torah tells
us, the final decree of annihilation was triggered by pecuniary crimes -
“vatimalei haaretz chamas,” and the land was filled with robbery. Why was
the crime of robbery considered worse than all the other horrendous crimes
of society? After all, robbery is not a capital crime, while some of the
others are indeed punishable by death. Why then was robbery the fuse that
ignited the explosion called the Great Flood?
To further complicate matters, the Midrash that the robbery so prevalent
in society was of a quite peculiar nature. Legally, a robber is not
required to return stolen goods worth less than a small coin called a
prutah. Such small sums are considered unworthy of litigation, and the
victim undoubtedly writes it off. The people in antediluvian society
would, therefore, steal from each other numerous times but always no more
than the most minuscule sums. Over a long period of time, however, they
were able to secure the property of their victims in a legal manner. But
let us stop and think for a moment. This was no brazen robbery, no
flaunting of the established authorities! Why should just this form of
robbery be considered the worst possible offense, sufficient cause for the
total inundation of society? How did this genteel, almost white-collar
form of theft surpass idolatry and adultery in pure evil?
The answer goes to the heart of the Torah perspective on the relationship
between sin and evil. Hashem does not consider people as individuals or
society as a whole to be evil simply because they committed a sin, even a
very serious sin. Hashem recognizes that people are but flesh and blood
and that sometimes it is exceedingly difficult to control the impulse to
transgress, to step over the line. Sinners are not necessarily evil and
The powerful attraction of sin does not, of course, exonerate the sinner.
It does not absolve him from having to take responsibility for his actions
and suffer the consequences. After all, he was given free will, and it is
his moral obligation to exercise it when faced with temptation. But if he
fails, if he is still not beyond hope. When the momentary weakness passes
and he faces the enormity of his transgression, he can still feel shame
and remorse. He can still find room in his heart for repentance.
But what if the sinner contrives loopholes and stratagems to give his sins
a patina of legality? Such a person is truly evil and incorrigible. He
pats himself on the back for his strict adherence to the law, even as he
thrusts his hand into another man’s pocket. This person acts not on
impulse but with loathsome preparation and premeditation. What chance is
there that such a man will have a change of heart, that he will repent?
Not very likely. And therefore, Hashem recognized the corruption of
society as permanent and irreversible. It was time to wash it away.
A ship was sinking, and land was just a faint line on the horizon. The
dust-encrusted life rafts were unfortunately all leaky, but the passengers
ran to grab them anyway.
One wise man ignored the rafts and prepared to plunge into the water.
“Don’t you want a raft?” asked the captain. “I can get you one.”
“No,” said the wise man. “If I know that I must swim with all my might I
have a chance of surviving. But if I mistakenly think I have a raft under
me, I am surely doomed.”
In our own lives, we may sometimes find ourselves rationalizing our
transgressions and shortcomings, maneuvering to find a path through the
minefields of our moral dilemmas. We must recognize these tendencies as
danger signals, as warnings that we are turning down a path that leads to
corruption. We should take advantage of these moments to reevaluate
ourselves, to transcend the frailties of the human condition and choose
goodness for its own sake. At these very moments, when we stand on the
brink of ruination, the right choice can elevate and enrich us for the
rest of our lives.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.