Considering what’s happening in the world these days, it’s not too difficult to imagine what life was like in the world prior to the great flood of Noah—before Gd decided to destroy the world. The Torah (Gen. 6:11-12) tells us: “The earth became corrupt before Gd; the earth was filled with lawlessness…for all flesh has corrupted its way in the earth.” In Noah’s world, there was nothing left to redeem—nothing worthy of being saved so Gd had no choice but to clean away the old and start anew.
The Torah never tells us what were the actual crimes committed by the generation of Noah. It allows our imaginations to run wild. What did these people do that was so heinous? One commentator suggest that they committed the 3 Cardinal sins: violence, idolatry and sexual immorality. There must have been a moment when Gd said, “That’s it; I can’t stand it any more. I’m going to wipe away this world!”
Let me ask you: is our world today so different? Just look at the violence in our world. This week we Jews feel deeply the senseless acts of terror committed against Israelis in the last couple of weeks that has left more than 40 dead and so many more wounded. And it’s not just the violence that’s so crazy. Look at how it’s reported:
- Israel is often blamed for the current acts of terror committed against Israelis. Palestinians stab Israeli’s and it’s Israel’s fault. Even Sec. of State John Kerry said this week that it was Israel’s fault that Israelis were being stabbed by Palestinians.
- NPR interviewed a family of a dead Palestinian who, it turns out, is actually alive.
- How about this headline from Bloomberg: “Two Palestinian Teenagers Shot by Israeli Police,” without any mention of why.
- Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas claimed that Israel executed a 13-year-old Palestinian, Ahmed Manasra. But he failed to note that the boy had stabbed and wounded a young Israeli in an unprovoked terror attack and was threatening to attack others before being shot. By the way, the boy is not dead and is being treated in an Israeli Hospital despite the fact he attacked an Israeli.
Let me tell you about some of the victims:
• Odel B. had deep wounds in her neck when she arrived at the hospital. Her husband had been hacked to death in Jerusalem’s Old City. Her toddler son also had knife wounds. They are recovering.
• American Richard L. was stabbed in the heart in a terrorist bus attack and remains in critical condition.
• After Pesach K. saw his cousin murdered in the street, he was stabbed in the head by the same terrorist. He’s recovering from surgery.
• Naor B., 12, was putting air in his bicycle tire when he was stabbed. He’s in serious condition after complicated surgery. His Bar Mitzvah is scheduled for November 28.
No wonder gun sales in Israel this week is way up. And it’s not just in Israel. Violence is seen all over the world today from Israel to Syria to Iraq to Turkey to Afghanistan to Ukraine to Africa…Our generation is certainly guilty of the Cardinal sin of violence.
What about the 2nd Cardinal sin of idolatry? The modern form of idolatry from my perspective takes its worst form in the use of Gd’s name to commit the most heinous crimes like the beheading of ones enemies and the annihilation of Christian communities in the Moslem world. Our world has certainly seen its share of immoral acts committed in the name of Gd.
The 3rd Cardinal sin is sexual immorality. There’s much to talk about with regard to this sin. The 1st thing that comes to my mind is the wholesale capture and rape of hundreds of school children by Boko Haram in Africa. Then there’s the rampant sexual trafficking that goes on all over the world—even here in America, even in Atlanta. And for me the worst is the rapid disintegration of family life all over the world. Do you know that here in America almost half the children are born out of wedlock? So we can relate to Noah’s generation sin of sexual immorality.
But there’s another approach from the Midrash as to why Gd brought the flood that destroyed the world that I’d like to share with you. This Midrash doesn’t accuse people of violating the 3 Cardinal sins, but something seemingly much less pernicious—thievery. The Midrash says they didn’t just steal; each person would come and take less a pruta—the smallest possible coin like a penny—from the victim, so that he/she would not be culpable in the eyes of the law and could not be accused of committing a crime. Apparently, a person could not be tried for stealing a pruta. But if enough people took a prutas from a victim, in the end the victim would be left penniless.
At 1st glance this might seem like a strange approach. What kind of crime is stealing a penny? Why would this make the world worthy of being destroyed? A penny is a negligible amount of money. In many stores today they subtract the extra penny or 2 on your bill rather than worry about providing exact change. And in some stores there’s even a container of pennies on the counter by the register so you can take them if your bill is a few cents over the change that you have. Pretty soon we’re probably going to do away with pennies all together!
Still, pennies add up. Imagine, for instance, inventing a computer program that allows you to take one penny out of every transaction that takes place in the banks of Atlanta this year. Chances are no one would notice the missing penny—especially if they keep their books the way I do. But over the course of a year one could possibly accrue a million dollars. Pennies add up, even if we don’t hold the person who steals them guilty of a crime. And when the people of Noah’s world worked together, they could literally bankrupt their victims from whom they all stole just a penny.
Whether or not you agree with the Midrash that this was a crime worthy of destroying the world, I think there’s an important lesson here: small acts can make a big difference—both in a positive and negative way. It’s not only the grand acts of violence that make the news…small acts of thievery, hate, and violence can add up to create a world that’s not redeemable. By the same token, small acts of kindness and caring can change another person’s life even if we don’t realize it. A handshake, a complement or a simple smile can change another person’s day and even their life.
The lesson is that there’s no such thing as a crime that’s too small or a good deed that’s too insignificant. All of our actions send ripples across the pond of life that effect others in ways that we aren’t even aware of.
So, of course, we recognize the heinousness of crimes such as murder or rape. But we often fail to take note of the small infractions and the petty crimes that take place every day. The truth is we don’t even consider some of these acts to be crimes. They often involve rudeness or insensitivity and you can’t be put in jail for being a bore. But they still make a difference. The person we bark at while at work, goes home and takes out his anger on his family. The child we ignore believes that he’s unworthy of love and may give up on life.
There’s no way to tell how the smallest mitzvah will change your life or the life of others. A penny in a pushke, a blessing recited before eating a meal, a phone call to a neighbor who’s not well might make all the difference in the world. Someone else’s life will be better because of you and your own life will be enriched and deepened because of the brief moment you took to perform a seemingly inconsequential act. And the sum total of all our Mitzvot are a blessing to the world just as much as the thievery in the time of Noah became a curse.
My friends, the world is a fragile place. Gd promised never to flood the world again, but that doesn’t mean we can’t destroy the blessings we have been given. All it takes are small acts. But small acts can also save us. They can tip the scales. Perhaps if we focus on doing more mitzvot right now, in our merit Gd may find a way to put an end to the violence in Israel this week. May it be so. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis