Chazal teach us that the generation of the Flood transgressed three sins, idolatry, illicit relations and thievery. Surprisingly, of the three, the decree of the Flood was sealed because of thievery. Idolatry and illicit relations are two of the cardinal sins. We are required to forfeit our lives rather than transgress them. Why was the decree of the Flood sealed specifically for thievery? What is it about thievery that makes it even worse than idolatry and illicit relations?
The fundamental reason that a person can permit himself to steal is that he does not recognize the owner’s rights. Chazal apply this concept to our relationship with God. They teach us that a person who eats without making a brachah first is considered to have stolen from God. The reason is that he is not acknowledging God’s ownership of the bread he eats.
The Sfas Emes expands this concept and applies it to all of life. He says that being in this world while not recognizing that God is the force underlying everything constitutes theft. For this reason the Chiddushei HaRim says that the Torah requires confession when a thief returns a stolen object, “וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת־חַטָאתָם אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ וְהֵשִׁיב אֶת־אֲשָׁמוֹ בְּרֹאשׁוֹ .../They will confess their sin that they committed and return the principal amount of his guilt …” Confession is required when repenting from any sin. Why does the Torah mention it specifically by repentance from the sin of theft?
The Chiddushei HaRim explains that confession here actually alludes to repentance for anything because every sin contains an aspect of theft. At the moment of the sinful act, there is always a denial of God. If the sinner recognized God before him, he would be unable to sin. As the Sfas Emes teaches, not acknowledging that God is the motive power underlying our actions constitutes theft.
The generation of the Flood did more than simply steal from their fellow man. They stole from God by not recognizing Him in the Creation. The Sfas Emes teaches us that to the extent that we recognize God in the world, God is revealed in the world. During the generation of the Flood, because they did not recognize God in the world, there was no divine revelation. Life is dependent upon divine revelation. When there is no divine revelation, we learn from the generation of the Flood that life ends. This is the meaning of the pasuk, “... קֵץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי כִּי־מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס .../… The end of all flesh has come before Me, because the earth was filled with thievery …” This is the exact opposite of the pasuk, “... מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ/… the world is filled with His glory.” When we recognize God, the world is filled with His glory. When we do not, it is the end of life. This is the reason the decree of the Flood was sealed specifically because of thievery; thievery representing not acknowledging God in the Creation.
The Zohar states this concept as well. The Zohar says that the ark is a metaphor for the Shechinah. “... וַיִּשְׂאוּ אֶת־הַתֵּבָה וַתָּרָם .../… They lifted the ark and it was raised …,” is an allusion to the Shechinah leaving the world. The Zohar says that once the Shechinah is no longer with us, there is no one to watch over the world and judgment rules. The Sfas Emes understands that the Shechinah leaving means the source of life has left.
This understanding sheds light on an enigmatic Midrash in this week’s parsha. The Midrash cites a pasuk in Yechezkeil, “הֶחָמָס קָם לְמַטֵּה־רֶשַׁע לֹא מֵהֶם ... וְלֹא־נֹהַּ בָּהֶם/Violence has arisen and become a rod against evil; it is not from them … there is no sobbing for them.” The prophet is referring to Nebuchadnezer. He is telling us that even though Nebuchadnezer destroyed evil, it was only God’s help that enabled him to succeed. The Midrash understands this pasuk homiletically as referring to the generation of the Flood. Thievery stood up before God like a rod and said that he is not of them and has no rest in them. This last is a play on words, changing נֹהַּ/sob to נֹחַ/rest.
What does, “he has no rest in them” mean? Elsewhere, the Sfas Emes explains that on the first Shabbos, the culmination of the Creation resulted in a revelation of God. Each part of the Creation was fulfilling its unique task such that the entire Creation acted as one harmonious system. A system in which all the parts operate smoothly can be considered to be at rest because there is no noise in the system. This is the reason that there is an elevation of the entire Creation towards God on Shabbos. He is more revealed. When “thievery” said that it has no rest in them, it means to say that the generation of the Flood was lacking a connection to God. God was hidden because the generation did not acknowledge Him.
This also explains another Midrash which says that No’ach was not worthy of being saved. He was only saved because Moshe Rabbeinu was to come from him. This seems to fly in the face of the pesukim which state clearly that he was righteous. However, according to the Sfas Emes, since No’ach was part of the generation that did not recognize God, there could be no rest for God in this generation, meaning that the generation was not connected to Him. True, No’ach was righteous in his own right, but the generation had a fatal flaw. It could not continue to exist. No’ach’s saving grace was his progeny.