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Parashat Noach 5773 — 10/17/2012

Parashat Noach 5773 — 10/17/2012

… for the earth is filled with injustice [chamas] through them (6:13)

Chamas – this is robbery and fraud.

Gd gave Noah the reason as injustice, and did not mention the “corrupting of ways,” because injustice is a known and public sin [whereas sexual immorality is a private sin].  The Sages (Sanhedrin 108a) said that it was over injustice that their decree was sealed [and not over sexual immorality].  The reason is because it [injustice] is a law that is intuitively understood, and the people had no need for a prophet to warn them about it.  Furthermore injustice is an evil both toward Gd and toward men, [while sexual immorality does not necessarily involve harming another person.]  Thus Gd informed Noah of the sin for which “the end had come.”  (Ramban ad loc, elucidation by Artscroll)

The lady doth protest too much, methinks (Hamlet III:2)

A developing story this summer (I am writing this mid-June) is the Vatican’s coming down on American nuns (through their umbrella organization) for being insufficiently active against those behaviors, like homosexuality, contraception and abortion, that the church hierarchy seems to be perpetually worked up over.  Imagine, these women who give up a home and children of their own and actually minister to poor, the sick, the oppressed and the dying, are not active enough in preaching hell-fire and perdition to our generation of sexual perverts and sinners.  It’s interesting to read the readers’ comments on these stories – in the fractious world of internet talkbacks it seems that readers of all faiths and all walks of life are solidly in support of the nuns (that probably even includes some whose knuckles still bear the imprint of a good sister’s ruler); it seems that there is a general intuition that the Catholic hierarchy has got the whole picture upside-down.  Perhaps the above quotes should be forwarded on to the Holy Father.

Indeed much has been made in this highly political season of the approach society ought to take to intimate relations between people, with a great deal of pompous pontificating (and not just from the pontiff); all this appears to do is to distract the nation’s attention from the great spiritual crisis we are in as a nation and as a world, and its economic and social impact.

In the interests of full disclosure let me state right up front – I believe the Torah is Gd’s instruction book to us for how to live our lives, and the behaviors it proscribes, like impermissible sexual liasons (including, but by no means limited to, homosexuality) have their negative consequences both for the individuals engaging in those behaviors and for society as a whole.  The Torah-prescribed penalties for these behaviors are quite severe, thus indicating that the influence that these behaviors create in society and in the cosmos, are extremely negative – that is, extremely destructive to the perfect order and integration that is the goal of creation.  Why these particular behaviors should be out-of-bounds while other, seemingly similar behaviors are not, I don’t know if anyone knows fully; that’s why Gd had to reveal the Torah to us – many of its ordinances are things we couldn’t figure out on our own.

When it comes to robbery, fraud, injustice and oppression, however, Ramban puts it well and succinctly: [not to behave unjustly] is a law that is intuitively understood, and the people had no need for a prophet to warn them about it.  Only a small child and the severely physiologically or psychologically damaged are unable to put themselves in someone else’s place, to feel the pain and outrage of being robbed (especially when it’s legal robbery), and to understand the application of the Golden Rule (as formulated by Hillel): That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.  However, it is also possible for one to construct barriers between himself and his fellow, to purposely blind oneself to what is going on, and to how his own actions are contributing to his fellow’s oppression.  This willful blindness allows injustice to propagate, until the whole earth is full of it, and Gd is forced to sweep everything away and start anew.

The Sages tell a story about Sodom.  When a peddlar would come to town selling, say, apples, all the people of the city would take one apple and just walk away without paying.  Each theft was so minor it was not recoverable in court, but at the end of the day the poor man was left with nothing.  For injustice like this Sodom paid the ultimate price.  Fast-forward to our own society and open a newspaper.  Greed and corruption rule the day from the top levels of government to the individual level.  We have a Supreme Court that apparently cannot tell the difference between free speech and bribery and extortion.  Politics has long since ceased to be a respectful debate on the best way to order society and has turned into a frenzied race to sell out to corporate sponsors, so that opponents can be slandered effectively.  The news media, when not being totally sycophantic, is busy bullying politicians it dislikes and hacking their email and phone accounts.

I often hear that the solution to all our problems is to “get the money out of politics.”  I would like to suggest that all the money polluting our political system and threatening our environment is a symptom of the problems we face, and not the cause.  Why are we so greedy – and I mean all of us – not just the Madoff’s of the world?  Somehow, we feel that the more wealth we amass, the safer we will be.  The experiences of the last few years should convince us how fleeting wealth is; our economy could collapse in an instant if that is what it will take to get us out of our delusion of being in control of our own destiny.

A wise man once said, “Only a new seed will yield a new crop.”  Our way of thinking about the world, where each of us is a separated individual, unconnected with each other and certainly unconnected to Gd, putting our faith only in the surface, visible, material values of life, has led us to the situation we are in, and holds out absolutely no promise for anything better.  The basis of life is purely spiritual; it is the infinite source of everything, our minds, our creativity, our senses, our bodies, our personalities.  What we really need to work on is our connection to our source, to Gd.  When we begin to experience ourselves as infinite beings, there will be no room for greed, no room for fear, no room for exploitation, no room for chamas.  We have to start with ourselves; if we get on the ball, maybe we won’t get swept away in the next flood.