By Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss
As we take our yearly tour through the lessons of Bereishis, we see a study in contrasts. On the one hand, we have the cruel selfish behavior of the Sodomites and the corrupt and promiscuous generation of the flood and on the other hand we have the incredible model of hospitality and kindness in the lives of Avraham and Sarah and the courageous selflessness and heroic self-sacrifice of Noach as he saved the entire animal and wildlife kingdom by caring for them and feeding them almost singlehandedly. It is a painful question to ask ourselves about our generation, now in the Twenty-first century: Who are we more like, the former or the latter?
When the Torah discusses the flood, it tells us that the world was destroyed, “Ki maulah haaretz chamas mipneihem – For the world was full of plunder through them.” Rashi elaborates, “Lo nechtam gezar dinam ela al hagezel – the fate of the generation was only sealed because of theft.” It would seem that the crimes of that generation of idolatry and immorality were more heinous than theft. Yet, they would have escaped oblivion if their sins had only been between man and G-d. Once there is also mixed in sins of bein adom lechaveiro, between man and his fellow man, then we take the matter out of Hashem’s Court and, as we are taught, even Yom Kippur and suffering do not atone for transgressions against one’s fellow until we ask for forgiveness and appease the one that we have wronged. The arrogant, brazen nature of the generation of the flood and the Sodomites ruled out that possibility and thus they were doomed.
It is interesting that the Torah zooms-in on the word ‘chamas.’ The definition of chamas is when we strong-arm someone to sell something even if we pay them but we’ve bullied them into making the sale. It is frightening how history repeats itself, how we find in our culture that the rich and the powerful are taking advantage and pushing around people in every area of life. People are pushed out of jobs when sons take over for parents as bosses. Tenants are forced to move at the whims of greedy landlords. Rabbis, who are often unprotected, are pushed-out by the next generation who want a younger, trendier model. Children are not accepted into yeshivas because the parents are just plain people without money or connections. Wives walk away from their husbands taking their children with them because they think that they could do better, and husbands disappear because they want a younger, prettier model. These are all examples of a world that is full of chamas.
The Torah tells us that Noach was told to build an ark out of gopher wood. Why such a strange material. Rashi informs us that gopher is similar to gofris, sulfur. The world was sulfurized and Noach was also deserving of punishment. Being incarcerated for a year in gofer wood took the place of being punished in gofris-sulfur.. Why was Noach deserving of punishment? He wasn’t corrupt, he wasn’t promiscuous and he wasn’t idolatrous. We are taught that Noach was guilty of not chastising enough the people of his generation. The Gemora in Masechtas Shabbos teaches us that if one is able to protest and does not do so, he is considered a partner in the crime. Sadly, the silent majority does not get up to protest when they witness people being mistreated. When a neighbor’s child is not in school, one shrugs and says, “I’ve got my own problems.” When a Rabbi is sent away without a pension, people cluck sympathetically but say that they don’t want to get involved. When your colleague is fired under false pretenses, you say to yourself “That’s corporate America for you.”
The Torah says make your model Avraham Avinu. Stand up for what’s right and start changing the world by correcting one wrong at a time. In the merit of learning from the ways of our great ancestors, my Hashem grant us long life, good health, and everything wonderful.
Sheldon Zeitlin takes dictation of and edits Rabbi Weiss’ articles.
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