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The Malady of Self-Deception

Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32 )

by Yehuda Appel

Yiddish humor defines "chutzpa" as the case of a child who murders his parents and then asks for leniency from the court because he is an orphan!

While such exaggerated self-deception is hard to imagine in real life, the capacity for human beings to lose touch with their actions can be truly remarkable. A true story which illustrates this took place in a suburb of Warsaw about 70 years ago:

A woman had come from out of town, bringing her family's meager savings with her, searching for profitable business transactions. As it happened, while she was staying at the local Jewish inn, thieves stole her money. When the local rabbis saw how distraught the woman was, they hit upon an unusual plan - to talk with the "leading" thieves in the area, whom these rabbis knew, and see if the money could be retrieved.

Surprised at being summoned by the rabbis, the thieves agreed to a meeting. One of the rabbis explained to them the difficult straits the victimized woman was in, and, though he was not at all certain what their response would be, suggested that the thieves keep 30 percent of the loot and give the rest back to the poor woman. Upon hearing this, one thief fell into a rage, shouting, "We worked hard for the money! It belongs to us! We're not going to keep less than 60 percent!"

Self-deception plays a role in this week's Torah portion. Much of the Parsha revolves around the story of the Great Flood. As is well known, the Biblical narrative describes how mankind had become so evil that the Almighty felt no choice but to destroy the human race and start over again. Only Noah and his family were spared when God brought a flood upon the world and returned it to the chaotic watery state that existed at the start of the original creation.

In fact, in many ways the Bible makes clear that what is occurring is nothing less than a "second creation." Aside from the reemergence of the primordial waters, and the renewed mixture of light and darkness, when Noah emerges from the ark, he receives pronouncements from the Almighty virtually identical with those given to Adam - e.g., to care for the world and to propagate it.

What is less clear, however, is what exactly was the transgression that "broke the camel's back" and caused the Almighty to bring a flood upon mankind. The Bible actually offers a number of possibilities. One possibility is that people of the time were guilty of sexual licentiousness of a most base type. The Midrash graphically describes the flood as being a case of measure for measure. Since an improper flow of sexuality poured forth from men everywhere, they were punished in turn with a flood of water.

Theft and violence are also described in the Bible as being rampant, and Rashi and many other commentaries see this as the ultimate cause of mankind's demise. While the Almighty was willing to withhold punishing them for their sexual immorality (since much of that activity was done consensually), He could not tolerate the stealing and victimizing of one another.

Conflict between one's children is one of the most disheartening and aggravating experiences that parents face. In fact, in Jewish tradition, this phenomenon is described as the most upsetting thing to the "Parent of us all," the Almighty. The Midrash notes that in the time of King David, the Israelites did not meet with the same success in battle as they did under the later leadership of King Ahab. But why should this be - in David's era the nation worshipped God faithfully, while in Ahab's time they worshipped idols!?

The Midrash explains that during David's life there was much dissension among the people while in Ahab's time the Israelites loved one another. Though they were unfaithful to God, the Almighty still rewarded his children for the love they showed to one another by granting them victories on the battlefield.

Much of the book of Genesis is devoted to this conflict between brothers. Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, are all stories of bitter sibling rivalries. Yet all these stories end in reconciliation. Together, Ishmael and Isaac bury their father Abraham. Jacob and Esau become reconciled when they meet after a 22-year separation. And Joseph forgives his brothers for their allowing him to be sold into slavery.

In the era of the Flood, the Sages suggest a deeper malady associated with the rampant thievery. The Midrash reports that often many thieves would descend on their victim together, but each of them would take only a very small quantity of goods to insure their individual exemption from prosecution. The thieves would repeat this over and over again. The end result was that though they had become enriched, the thieves could rationalize they hadn't really done anything wrong, for, after all, no court was demanding they stand trial.

With this understanding, the error of the flood generation was more than simply a case of people constantly stealing. It was a situation in which people had so lost their moral compass that they'd become embroiled in self-deception and could no longer recognize that they'd done wrong. It was because their self-deception had become so extreme that they were beyond repair and the Almighty had no choice but to start His creation all over again.

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