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crimes and their justifications
There is one thing worse than crime.
Crime that is whitewashed, justified, rationalized, turned into one’s human right, and ultimately a “mitzvah.”
Take a look at the first sin in the Garden of Eden. It wasn’t the eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
It was denying it, and blaming it on others.
God kept communicating with Adam — even after he’d violated the one prohibition he had — right up until the point that Adam wiped his hands clean of any responsibility:
“Don’t look at me, God.”
“It’s my wife’s fault…”
“…and now that I think about it…it’s Your fault that you set me up with her!”
This is a conversation stopper. It was apparent that there was no one home to speak to.
Why should God have continued speaking with Adam, if Adam, in his mind, bore no responsibility? So God turned to Eve:
I guess it runs in the human family. She blamed a snake for her mistake.
“The dog ate her homework,” so to speak.
Unfortunately, denying responsibility is apparently a dominant gene. Adam and Eve’s oldest son Cain was indicted by God not only for murdering his brother in a fit of rage, but for denying responsibility and covering his murdered brother’s blood:
To more fully appreciate this, compare it to the first of ten plagues in Egypt many years later, with the turning of the Nile River to blood. The Nile was, of course, the main source of economic prosperity in ancient Egypt, but the plague was more than just punitive.
Pharaoh had thought that he could solve the “Jewish problem” by having his soldiers go from door to door euthanizing male Jewish babies, and tossing their bodies in the river to cover up the damning evidence. But do we really believe that Egyptian civilians didn’t know that this was happening? It’s certainly more discreet to dispose of bodies in the river than on the street, but without a doubt, all Egyptian civilians knew of the innocent blood being spilled. At the very least, those who did nothing were accomplice through their silence. Every last one turned a blind eye to the blood in the river that they would visit multiple times a day for all their household needs.
The river turning to blood was an exposé of their crimes: the crime of killing our children, and the further crime of covering up their guilt.
On the heels of Cain’s crime of murder and his more subtle but no less damaging crime of whitewashing what he had done, human society proceeded to deteriorate generation after generation.
How could it not, if responsibility had not been taken?
Human behavior only changes when humans assume responsibility.
Eventually, the Torah describes the earth being “corrupted,” which has been classically understood as a reference to a theological corruption by way of idolatry, and a relational corruption by way of adultery. These two are known to be among the top 3 most severe of crimes in the Torah (with murder being the 3rd). We see once again, however, that neither of these is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The last straw was something called “hamas-חמס”:
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים לְנֹחַ קֵץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי כִּי־מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס מִפְּנֵיהֶם וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם אֶת־הָאָרֶץ׃
God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with hamas-חמס because of them: I am about to destroy them along with the earth.
The coincidence of this appearing in the weekly Torah portion with the outbreak of the 2023 Gaza War with Hamas did not go unnoticed. Last week, some worried that Whatsapp would go down due to volume of memes of this verse flying around.
What was not sufficiently well-explained, however, was: what does “hamas” mean precisely, and is this more than a superficial, albeit dark serendipity?
(To be clear, the terrorist group did not choose their name based on the Hebrew word חמס from the Torah. Hamas is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya, the Islamic Resistance Movement.)
Rashi, the preeminent 11th century commentator on the Torah succinctly explained the term hamas to mean “theft-גזל.”
Translating “hamas” as “theft” is odd for a few reasons:
Idolatry and adultery are considered much more severe crimes than theft — why then would theft be the last straw?
The Talmud specifically makes the distinction between hamas and theft, explaining that the difference is that a hamsan (someone who commits and act of hamas) compensates the owner for what he took against the owner’s will, whereas a gazlan (a thief) just takes it without paying for it. Why then did Rashi mix up the two terms?
If hamas means you pay for what you take, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that just called “making a purchase?”
Four hundred years ago, the Maharal of Prague explained the depth behind Rashi’s deceptively simple comment:
The generation of the flood was flat-out stealing from one another. No one was paying anyone for what they were taking. However, theft had become so endemic to that society — it was so constant and ubiquitous and chaotic and cavalier — that people stopped seeing it as theft at all. In their minds, however, they considered it as if they were paying for what they were getting.
How!?! Well, they were operating under a reasonable assumption that whoever they were stealing from had either stolen from them directly, or stolen from someone who had stolen from them. In either case, they were just taking back what was, in their minds, rightfully theirs.
The depth of the problem of this society was not only the crimes that were being committed constantly, but that they had become completely whitewashed and normalized. This is the problem of hamas-חמס.
Hamas is the epitome of a crime that is so far gone in its rationalization that there is no way to walk it back. There is no one home to talk to. No one to take any level of responsibility.
There is a longstanding, widespread custom for Jews to read Psalm 27 throughout the month leading up to Rosh Hashana right up until Shmini Atzeret, the holiday on which Hamas chose to brutally attack us this year. Many people quickly noticed the uncanny “coincidence” between the text of this Psalm and the events that were unfolding.
It essentially is a charge to stay connected, positive and unafraid in the face of terrible challenges and the attacks of enemies.
It asks God to keep us balanced as we grapple with not just a physical war, but a war on our self-image:
The third to last line is mind-blowing:
I kid you not.
The messages are clear. And it’s not just to further condemn our enemy, who truly needs no fancy dvar Torah to be condemned.
We are waging a spiritual war in tandem to the physical war. It is a war for the soul of humanity.
We have to guard our conscience. We have to take responsibility for our moral failings. We have to be honest with others and with ourselves. We have to uproot this hiding from God and from ourselves that we’ve inherited over hundreds of generations.
Let’s finally answer God back to his original question, “Where are you?”
We’re here. We’re not perfect. We’ve made mistakes. But we’re ready to take responsibility for them. And ready to become better.
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