Noach: Small Things

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach / Rosh Chodesh

“God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth . . . ‘ ”
(Bereshit / Genesis 6:13)

Greetings on this glorious morning!

Well, as we see from the verse above, it may be a glorious morning in the Hudson Valley but at the time of Noach, things weren’t so great. The “lawlessness” [chamas] in the verse above (and verse 11) is understood by the ancient rabbis to indicate a special fondness for robbery among the people of Noach’s generation.

Now, let’s leave aside the ethical problems with collective punishment- to say nothing of the theological difficulty in this story- and let’s just take it at face value for a moment that the generation of the flood was indeed so evil, so selfish and so committed to stealing and preying on each other that the only way to start over was to wipe the slate clean, as it were. Again, let’s bracket for today the harshness of the decree and just focus on the dramatic scene: a whole society utterly corrupted, with no respect for rights, property, dignity or safety.

You”d probably imagine that everybody in Noach’s time was Bonnie and Clyde, stealing brazenly, but the rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud told a startling midrash:

“What did they steal? If someone walked out carrying a basket of beans, they would steal an amount worthy less than a penny so they would not be guilty in court.” (Adapted from the Torah Temimah)

This is interesting- the robbery and stealing wasn’t, in this telling, like Bonnie and Clyde- guns (well, bows) blazing and bold heists- but was more like petty shoplifting on the order of noshing out of the bulk bins. This image hardly suggests a world filled with corruption, deserving of an unmerciful fate. . . . does it?

Perhaps the ancient rabbis of the land of Israel (where the Jerusalem Talmud was compiled) were suggesting that nonchalant cynicism is just as destructive to society as overt lawlessness. Countless small acts of self-centered disregard for others will also bring collapse on a community, just as surely as the more dramatic kinds of crime. Now, to be sure, most people reading this don’t make it habit to steal beans out of each other’s baskets- but perhaps the midrash is suggesting that we should pay better attention to the small ways we can respect each other, better to create a warmer, more generous and compassionate community as a whole.

To put it another way, I remember a sign up in the Essex County Correctional Facility, where I used to visit as a volunteer chaplain: it said something like “character is what you do when nobody is looking.” In terms of our midrash on Noach, I might rephrase that as: “society is sustained from small things- and we are all potential builders.”

Shabbat Shalom,


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