Small Crimes, Big Punishment
Genesis Rabbah 31:5
איזהו חמס ואיזה היא גזל
אמר רבי חנינא: חמס אינו שוה פרוטה, וגזל ששוה פרוט
וכך היו אנשי המבול עושים, היה אחד מהם מוציא קופתו מליאה תורמוסים, והיה זה בא ונוטל פחות משוה פרוטה, וזה בא ונוטל פחות משוה פרוטה, עד מקום שאינו יכול להוציאו ממנו בדין
What is the difference between gezel and hamas? Rabbi Hanina says, “Hamas is theft of a small amount whereas gezel is theft of a large amount. And this is what the generation of the flood would do, when someone would come to the market with beans to sell, many people would steal an amount so small they could not be prosecuted in court.”
This week’s midrash has a rather shocking answer to the question of why the world deserved to be wiped out in the days of Noah. One might expect a midrash seeking to answer this question as being filled with heinous crimes: wanton murder, rampant violence, deep-seated corruption in houses of power. But instead, in the midrash, Rabbi Hanina cites a relatively small act as the reason all life on this planet was put to an end. God flooded the earth because people would steal an amount so small, it could not be prosecuted in a court of law. The world was not destroyed because of a whirlwind of violence, rather due to a still small voice of immorality, small acts of theft that fell out of the purview of any legal system.
While the action described by Rabbi Hanina was small, the cumulative effect of many small thefts resulted in a significant loss of property for the bean seller. What’s more, these small thefts signify a disregard for morality and the singular concern for upholding the letter of the law as opposed to the spirit and purpose of the law. With this understanding, the lessons embedded in the midrash come into focus. Our small actions good and bad have a profound effect on the world and our society. Our concern must not be only with the minutiae of the law, religious or otherwise, but with its spirit as well. Morality and the drive to do good must permeate all that we do, whether big or small, whether at home or in the marketplace.