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Mei Noach and Mayim Bialik

Rabbi Yehuda Septimus

Rabbi Jeffrey Miller sent an email to his listserv this past week with the heading, "One of my Rebbeim said that you can always find something in the news relating to daf yomi and/or parsha."  The email itself was a link to a news story of two men in Brockton, MA, who robbed a city convenience store this past week while armed with large knives. The article goes on to say that the men could face penalties much higher than the potential reward they sought in the robbery.  That is because all they asked for was...  a single dollar.

Rabbi Miller was no doubt referring to the midrash that tells us that the sin of the generation of the flood was their stealing objects of hardly any worth, less than the value of a penny, a shaveh prutah.  But, of course, this statement only begs the question:  IS it true that this is all the people of dor hamabul, the generation of the flood, did to warrant the destruction of the entire world?

Because from the description of the sins of that generation at the beginning of the parshah it seems like they did a lot more than that. 

.וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ, לִפְנֵי הָאֱלֹקים; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, חָמָס

And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with chamas.

The two evils of this verse are emphasized a few times in the Torah’s description of pre-flood society – השחתה and חמס.   Both of these words can be translated as terms of far-reaching and intense moral corruption.

At first glance, Chazal choose NOT to see חמס and השחתה in these terms.  Instead they choose to see these two descriptions as very specific sins carried out under very specific circumstances.  They tie the term השחתה, generally translated as corruption, with the pasuk from the end of Bereshit in which we are told:

.וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי-הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם, כִּי טֹבֹת הֵנָּה; וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים, מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ

The most powerful men saw women who were beautiful and took them however they desired.    Similarly, Chazal describe חמס as a specific type of theft – either petty larceny, steeling than a penny’s worth, or the purchase under duress of that which people do not want to sell.

Chazal's very specific description of what seem like much broader moral failures here seems odd.  HaKadaosh Baruch Hu saw the situation as so dire that He needed to hit control-alt-delete on the entire world and start over.   And the terms חמס and השחתה, if we look elsewhere in the Torah, do imply RAMPANT MORAL CORRUPTION, not specific sins committed under very specific circumstances.  So why do Chazal interpret the sin in such a specific, limited fashion?

I believe the answer is clear. What Chazal are describing might seem like specific sins... but they point to something much broader. What they point to is a culture of exploitation – of people viewing other humans as disposable objects they can use rather than as beings created in the image of God.

What caused the ultimate punishment of destruction of the world was abuse of power and exploitation of people in positions of weakness – whether powerful men exploiting women, whether the rich exploiting the poor, or whether society exploiting people for base purposes rather than helping them achieve Divine ones.

This was not what God had in mind when He created humankind.   God built humans up – literally forming them and blowing life into them.  We are supposed to imitate God, doing the very same for those around us.  We are supposed to build people up, identify the Godliness in them, and bring that Godliness to life.   The exploitation of the generation of the flood was the opposite of the purpose of creation.   Commentators have noted that going back to the beginning of Creation, the primordial state of the world was water.  When we are undeserving of the world, it reverts to that self-same pre-human condition.

The saga that has been played itself out before our eyes over the past couple of weeks of a disgraced movie producer and his sickening treatment of women has obviously brought the topic of sexual abuse in our culture to the fore.  This past week, a social media wildfire was ignited by the #metoo hashtag, with women (and some men) from all walks of life posting the phrase to declare that they had also experienced sexual harassment or abuse, and with millions posting the hashtag.

But I would like to focus on a specific reaction of one woman to the news-frenzy. One of our own Orthodox Jews in Hollywood, Mayim Bialik, took a lot of criticism this past week for a New York Times op-ed she wrote in the wake of the saga.

I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise.  I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations...  I dress modestly.  I don't act flirtatiously with men as a policy...  Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses men for assaulting or abusing women.  But we can't be naïve about the culture we live in.  I believe that we can change our culture, but it won’t be something that happens overnight. We live in a society that has treated women as disposable playmates for far too long

to expect such change in an instant.  She concludes by encouraging young women to cultivate the parts of themselves that may not garner them money and fame, and that having others celebrate your physical beauty is not the way to lead a meaningful life.

It is of course not surprising that Bialik took a lot of criticism for her words.  In our world with too many victims, her tone sounded a bit too much like blaming the victim.    And she apologized the next day for the hurt that caused. 

But I believe Bialik made two points – only one of which deserved retraction.  The first point was to claim that her own modesty served as a form of self-protection.  It is that statement that was understandably hurtful to victims of assault and deserved the retraction.  But the second point was that any woman (and in my opinion any person) who acts with a thoughtful and careful attitude about the way they project the very thing our culture seems to overemphasize – their bodies – can play a small role in changing our culture to one of greater mutual respect.  Unfortunately, that point was lost in the aftermath of her op-ed, but the point was very important, and it bears repeating.

This is a message that the our age-old mesorah of tzeniut can and should teach today’s culture.  And it is about more than the way we dress.  We have a responsibility not to see others as objects and not to allow ourselves to become objects, not to define others' worth or to allow our own self-worth to be defined by all different kinds of externals – beauty, money, status, or anything else.

We have an obligation moreover to see to see our inner, Divine, selves – our tzelem Elokim – as our most important selves.  And we have an obligation to train our eyes to see the inner value in others – not just focusing on what they can do for me but how we can best bring out their tzelem Elokim.

Humanity during the generation of the flood did not first drown at the hands of God.   It first drowned at its own hands.  It drowned itself in its lack of recognition of proper respect for one another.  To survive and recreate themselves in the wake of the corruption the flood sought to annihilate, Noach and his family needed to build a tevah – a protective arc.  The protective arc reinforced the notion that God’s creations deserved protection.   Moreover, it reinforced that we are NOT our external trappings.  We are our Godliness—our inner goodness, our intellects, and our personalities, quirks included.

It is true, a fixation on the physical component of modesty has the potential to objectify, just as does lack of modesty.  Tzeniut in our tradition is about a way of being that sees the whole person, inside and out, in such a way that allows their inner being to shine forth most prominently.  But I believe tzeniut done right can influence even our profoundly non-modest Western culture.   Make no mistake; modest dress will NOT shield people from the scary threats of our objectifying and exploitative world.  But it can play a small part in the much larger battle of changing our culture to be less objectifying and exploitative.

In our world – for men and for women – in the way we dress, in the way we act in business, in the way we interact with people to build them up rather than use them – the generation of Noach reminds us that we each have a role to play.  We each have a part to play in creating a world that sees other people for their human and Divine goodness.   May our society see progress in this fundamental challenge.

Fri, July 12 2024 6 Tammuz 5784