Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Earth was Filled with Lawlessness: Parashat Noah

One of the questions that emerges each year as we read Parashat Noah is, "How big was the sin that his generation committed? What did they do that convinced God to destroy the world?" The rabbis respond to this question in an unexpected way. The sin that they committed was not "large" in the traditional sense. Rather, the people of Noah's generation stole just enough so that it was worth their while, but not enough to be prosecuted by the courts. In both Bereshit Rabbah and the Jerusalem Talmud, the rabbis tell us that these individuals would:

ונוטל פחות משוה פרוטה וזה בא ונוטל פחות משוה פרוטה עד מקום שאינו יכול להוציאו ממנו בדין

"...take less than a prutah (a small amount of money) -- just the right amount so that they could not be brought before a court for their crime." (Genesis Rabbah 31:5)

Etz Hayim, the Conservative Commentary explains why God considered this act to be so heinous, " The Jerusalem Talmud understands the word translated as 'lawlessness' (hamas)to mean that people cheated each other for such small sums that the courts could not prosecute them. This caused people to lose faith in the power of government to provide them with a a fair and livable world, and society began to slip into anarchy." (p. 41)

The true evil behind Noah's generation was not the amount of money that was stolen, but rather, the way in which the theft occurred. By playing the system and looking for loopholes, this generation damaged the rule of law and the claim of justice. The effects of their crime were not limited to the two immediate parties involved. Rather, they cumulatively degraded the moral standing, purchase, and authority of their government. The ultimate effect of this insidious, "barely legal" behavior was a society so wicked that God could not let it continue.

In David Brooks' column today, he opens with the following observation, "The elemental question in American politics is: Do voters trust their government? During the middle of the 20th century, more than 70 percent of Americans said that they trusted government to do the right thing most of the time. During the 1970s, that fell. By the Iraq war, only 25 percent trusted government. Now, amid the economic slowdown, public trust has hit an all-time low. According to a CNN/ORC International poll, only 15 percent of Americans asked said that they trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time."

At least part of the loss of faith in the US government is due to its inability to prosecute individuals who commit financial crimes that are "barely legal." With loopholes and fancy legal footwork, large banks manage to evade taxes and financiers can profit by betting on the failure of businesses. The current state of affairs is clearly wrong, but often, still within the framework of legality. Therefore, due to the fact that the government cannot correct these wrongs, the citizens of the United States have lost faith in the art of governance almost completely.

Part of what can be learned from this week's portion is that legality is not morality. Just because a court cannot prosecute for something, does not mean that it is morally justifiable. An ethically bankrupt society cannot stand before God, and cannot command the loyalty and faith of its citizens -- all of which are needed for the survival of a nation. Through faith, the propagation of the Torah's teachings, and the personification of Torah values, we can all play a part in redeeming our society. Communities of faith play a unique role in the cultivation of conscience, both on personal and communal levels. Let us all take part in this essential process for the safety and security of our nation.