Shabbat No’akh: There’s Still Time

What caused the destruction of all that lived upon the earth? The Torah describes the divine thought process:

וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃

The earth became corrupt before G*d; the earth was filled with lawlessness.

וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

When G*d saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth,

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

G*d said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Bereshit 6.11-13)

Comparisons with other ancient literature show a common thread in the Flood story: something more powerful than humans reacts to human evil.

What was the evil that was so great that it caused the destruction of the world? Jewish commentaries focus upon the word in our parashah, חמס – hamas, “lawlessness.” In modern Hebrew the definition is

Violence, injustice, oppression, wrong, cruelty, injury

The term appears in the Torah in contexts that show that the behavior is sociopathic:

“Malicious witness” – Shemot 23.1

“Testify falsely” – Devarim 19.16

Jacob’s deathbed curse of Shimon and Levi: their tools are tools of hamas (Bereshit 49.5)

These ancient witnesses to the breakdown of human relationships and the ensuing world-destroying horror shine a truth upon all of us. In the words of Thursday’s bar mitzvah, Alexandre Leikam, the world was destroyed because human beings did not work together in community for good.

The world was destroyed by hamas. Violence, injustice, oppression, wrong, cruelty, and injury committed by people like you and me. It will be destroyed again by you and me if we do not learn the lesson that hamas is not demonic, but in our hands to do or to not do.

It’s easy to see this in the Climate Emergency activists, led by young people demanding the hope of their future from corporations that maximize profit at the expense of all life. We can see it in the effects of social breakdown that cause suffering and death to the vulnerable, whether they die of cold in a tent or of a policeman’s gun. 

It’s harder to see our own part in either the evil or the good. For that we have to go back to the Torah and look for our own reflection. 

What is it to testify falsely? We can see it in the Torah’s prescribed remedy: no one is convicted on the basis of one witness. There must be two – and they must speak openly. No anonymous complaints are given credence.

What is it to witness maliciously? Maimonides supplies the answer: lashon hara’, speaking negatively of another person. 

This does not mean that we are not to denounce wrongdoing. It does mean that every time we speak up to criticize, we must balance the mitzvah of naming hamas with the mitzvah of “love the other as you love yourself,” which means that you should call out someone else as you yourself would appreciate being notified that you’ve crossed the line of social decency.

What destroys the world? Disconnect between you and me, the kind that allows you to complain about me, or me about you, without ever feeling the need to actually talk together to repair our relationship. 

According to our Jewish ethical tradition, the doorway into the opportunity to repent our evil that opened at Yom Kippur does not close until Hanukkah. On this Shabbat No’akh, consider not the evil corporations but the casual hamas of our days, and seek to rid yourself of it. Stop expecting the worst of others; stop carping; start loving. The world depends upon it.

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