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The Thief’s Answer!

By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil

Imagine a fantastic life where children are conceived and born on the same day. A newborn child is immediately able to stand and walk with the ability to speak. The land is filled with abundance and great produce. People possess enormous physical strength and live for hundreds of years. Sounds great!? Isn’t that what we are trying to achieve through scientific advances?

Well, that was the situation in Noach’s generation.

Although mankind no longer lived in Gan Eden, their life style before the flood still resembled that of Gan Eden.

Yet this affluence led them to depart from G-d and focus on themselves.

Our Sages relate that the generations before the flood worshiped idols, killed and committed immoral acts.

These sins alone however, didn’t warrant the flood. It was only due to their ‘Chamas’ that Hashem stated “The end of all flesh has come before me.” (Bereishit 6:13)

What was this Chamas and why was it such a powerful sway of judgement?

Rashi explains Chamas with the word Gezel – steeling.

The Midrash Rabba (31:5) relates that in those days, when a man brought out a basket full of peas, he would soon be surrounded by a mob snatching them away. Each one cleverly took a small amount worth less than a Pruta (small coin). The man’s basket was soon empty. Yet the victim was unable to present the matter to a judge because each culprit could claim that he had stolen an amount so minute that he was not liable to punishment by law.

The people of that generation would steel such a small amount from each other that no one could take them to court.  Society was crumbling. There was no punishment for their wrong actions, and the unfortunate situation was that this was rampant.

The Ben Ish Chai asks a fascinating question.

We can understand that the person who was steeling should be punished, but why should the store owner be punished? It’s not his fault that people are constantly steeling beans from his shop?

He answers with a wonderful Mashal.

A thief was caught in the act and the King ruled that he be put to death.

He was offered a last wish.

He turned to the king and crying in a sincere voice exclaimed “if you kill me, then my secret will be lost forever. Let me explain your honour.” He said to the king.

“I am sorry for what I did, and accept my punishment, but if you are going to kill me then my secret will be lost forever.”

“What is your secret?” asked the king.

“I know how to take a seed, cook it with special ingredients and plant it in the ground, within a few minutes a tree will grow and give delicious fruits lasting forever.”

The king was impressed, and said go ahead, lets see this work.

The thief asked for the ingredients to be brought to him and after a few hours began to make this special potion.

“Now its ready”, exclaimed the thief. “There is only one thing left. This needs to be planted in the ground by someone that has never stolen before in his life.

I unfortunately can’t plant this seed.

But perhaps the honourable Treasurer of the King can plant the seed,” he said facing towards the Treasurer.

The Treasurer was surprised and said, “Why give me such a great honour. I deal with so much money, who knows……I suggest you ask the Prince.”

The Prince without blinking an eyelid said that he was not worthy, with all his endeavours amongst the people, perhaps he too had stolen.

The thief, looked to the right of the king, and asked if the education minister who was standing there, could plant the seed.

He too refused, “I must be honest your Majesty, when I was a young teenager I once stole from a store. I cannot plant this.”

The thief turned to the king and said, “The Prince doesn’t have clean hands, the Treasure can’t insure he hasn’t stolen and the education minister has stolen in the past – and only I am going to the gallows? Didn’t you all steel too!!

The Ben Ish Chai explains in the generation of Noach, that the owners of the shops shouted out to stop the thieves, but at the same time they too were culpable of the crime of steeling. They themselves had stolen miniscule amounts many times.

This was a generation rampant in steeling.

There is a glaring question that must be asked. If the generation was so successful, if they were so physically strong and had abundance in produce, why did they steel? And why such miniscule amounts?

There is a custom that a special Tehillim is read in the house of mourners.

Tehillim Chapter 49 which generally deals with our task in life and the idea that we do not take our physical possessions with us into the next world.

In its initial words it states “Haazinu Kol Yoshvei Chaled – listen all the inhabitants of the world.”

The word Chaled is very interesting, as normally we would expect to use the word Yoshvei or Ezrachei for inhabitants.

Our Sages (in the Yerushalmi) offer a most amazing insight into this word.

When a lion is hungry it tears away at its prey. It devours and eats what it needs and leaves the rest, moving on once satisfied.

The Chulda – weasel, however, gathers in all food that it encounters on its way. As much as it can hold, no matter how satisfied it is, if it comes upon prey it will gather and gather until it can’t hold any more.

The Sages explain that the word Chaled has its root in Chulda. The inhabitants of the land are always seeking to gather and make more and more physical possessions, yet these will not be with them forever.

In this world, if you want something, then money buys. In certain countries it can buy you votes, it can buy you power and life.

But says the Tehillim when the time comes, even the greatest billionaire cannot buy himself out of the end.

Money is great and is needed to be used, saved, invested and spent wisely, but not just to be gathered and gathered forever.

This Tehillim is read in the mourners’ house to send home the message that the physical world is temporary and the real focus remains the ever lasting Olam Habah.

 

The people in Noach’s generation were affluent. They had it all. Yet ‘all’ wasn’t enough.

They reasoned: “If we can get some free beans, then so be it. If it means we are steeling, well that doesn’t matter, so long as according to the law we will not be punished, its ok.”

Their whole reasoning was warped.

Sometimes affluence leads to major sins, but at the same time it can affect a person’s behaviour. People start to think that they deserve everything, and they will do whatever it takes to get what they want. They decipher new ways to get round the laws, strengthening loopholes in order to better their standards. Selfishness at a ridiculous level causes society to tamper and the interaction between people brakes. When that happens the world comes crumbling in.

Hashem created a world and a society in order that we work together in unity. Each person can think and desire for themselves, but that doesn’t negate the effect of a cohesive society in which people care for each other as brothers and sisters.

In our times we have experienced the most amazing boom the world has ever seen in technology and wealth advancement. On the other hand, we are now experiencing a downturn that is affecting millions worldwide. We have been through the good and the bad, but what must always stand is the values of society and caring of others.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: The world stands on three things: justice, truth, and peace. Lets make sure the world stays standing!

Shabbat Shalom

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