“And Hashem said to Noach: The end of all flesh has come before me since the land is filled with robbery through them, and I will now destroy the land.” – Bereishis 6:13
In this pasuk, Hashem appears to Noach, telling him the world has turned to evil and He will now destroy all of life. Noach, his family, and the animals that remained pure will be the core of a new world. The reason for this destruction is stealing – “since the land is filled with robbery.”
Rashi is troubled that thievery is being treated as the pivotal point of the world’s existence. There are many sins that are worse. Rashi seems to answer this by saying that stealing was the crime that sealed their fate. Granted they were involved in other iniquities, but this was the one that actually demanded justice.
This Rashi is difficult to understand, as we know stealing is not one of the most severe sins. There are three cardinal sins a Jew is obligated to give up his life not to commit: idol worship, adultery, and murder. While stealing is certainly a serious crime, it isn’t among these – in fact, it isn’t even in their league.
Even more to the point, in a previous pasuk Rashi told us the main crimes then were idol worship and illicit relations. The Torah tells us “all flesh was corrupted.” It is clear that these more serious sins were rampant. How then can we understand Rashi’s statement that stealing was the crime that caused their destruction?
This question can best be answered with a mashal.
Different Scales of Measure
Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries on the planet; the average working man there earns about 180 dollars a year. Imagine that I walk into a Savings and Loan Company in the United States and say, “I am looking to take out a mortgage on a new home.”
The loan officer will ask me, “What is your income? What assets do you have?”
I respond, “My friend, no need to worry. Why, I earn as much as ten men in Bangladesh. In fact, I don’t like to brag, but I earn as much as a hundred men there!”
Needless to say, I wouldn’t secure a loan. Because earning 1,800 dollars a year or even 18,000 dollars a year in our economy is below poverty level.
This is an example of different scales of measure. In a third world country where much of the population is starving, earning your daily bread and water might qualify you as well off, whereas in a more affluent world, it would be quite poor. More than objective wealth being the determinant of your status, it is the standard against which you are being measured. When the bar is raised, it becomes much more difficult to be considered acceptable.
So too, in the system of Hashem’s judgment, there are different standards of measure. There is din – strict judgment, and there is rachamim – the mercy system. Strict din demands perfection. There is no room for shortcomings and no place for excuses; you are responsible. You did an act that act that brought about a result, so you are accountable – utterly, completely and totally. No mitigating factors, no extenuating circumstances. You are guilty as charged.
Rachamim is very different. This system introduces understanding: “There were compelling factors.” “It was a difficult situation.” “There are few people in this generation who would have done much better.”
In the Heavenly system of judgment, there is a balance between rachamim and din. At one point, the balance may be 60 percent rachamim, 40 percent din. At another point it might be 80/20. If strict din would be in place, no mortal could stand. Even the Avos, the greatest humans who ever lived, would not have passed.
Certain times and actions change the balance between rachamim and din. Much of our davening focuses on asking Hashem to judge us more favorably, to introduce mercy into the deliberation. On the flip side, there are certain actions that strengthen the middah of din, moving the balance over to more strict judgment.
This seems to be the answer to Rashi. It isn’t that stealing is a more severe crime than immorality – it is less severe. However, there is an element to stealing that awakens din. Stealing from a person demonstrates a total disregard of his rights – it’s as if he isn’t a person. I can take away his property, even his very sustenance. Chazal tell us, “As a person acts toward others, Hashem acts toward him.” Because robbery is an abrogation of a person’s rights, it causes a change in the way Hashem judges. It is as if Hashem says, “If you act that way toward others, then I will act accordingly to you.” Therefore, stealing changes the way Hashem judges because it causes the middah of din to react more strongly.