Originally published October 2011 / 5772
In the aftermath of the tragic fratricide of Hevel, Adam HaRishon separated from his wife. The descendants of Cain developed a civilization possessed of advanced culture and technology, but which was morally infantile. Seeing that his progeny had failed, Adam rejoined his mate and produced Sheis, the foundation stone of future generations.
By the time Noach appeared on the scene, the corruption of humanity had become indelibly ingrained. Chazal teach that the widespread thievery of Noach’s generation was what caused the flood, and not the equally common sexual immorality. Why is thievery worse?
Adultery and the like are the result of a breakdown of the natural barriers and inhibitions against frivolity which normally protect us from our inclinations. Thievery is much more insidious. Chazal compare a person’s possessions to his very soul, as קנין comes from the word קנה, a cane connecting one’s property to one’s self. Someone who steals from his fellowman denies him his very life blood and access to continued spiritual advancement. The lecher, in relenting to his passions, has diminished his self value; the thief is so internally shattered that he has negated it entirely. He permits himself to steal by denying his own capacity to possess.
Noach was the single human being in his generation to have built up enough integrity of self to merit the continuation of mankind.
This theme of integrity of self continues into the parshah’s conclusion. In Babylon, all of humanity was of one mind and one tongue. Chazal teach that they had united in rebellion against God, but as true as that is, it’s not directly apparent from the words themselves. God had intended his children to spread out over the face of the earth. That mankind had congealed into a single culture was itself the problem. Whereas the antediluvian line had faltered by exploding their sense of self until they had dissolved even the most rudimentary boundaries between individuals; in Nimrod’s generation, individuality was whitewashed until people became nothing more than bricks in the tower.
Without respect for proper boundaries, society collapses into anarchy. But a glut of control is a totalitarian nightmare. Either extreme is destructive, either extreme destroys the human spirit. The lesson of parshas Noach is to recognize and respect our selves, maintaining proper boundaries while allowing the spirit to flourish.