Parashat Noach

The portion about Noah and his famous Ark gives rise to some interesting questions.  For example, when God tells Noah that He is going to destroy the Earth with a flood, God says,

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ
קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם
וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

“The end of all flesh has come before Me for the earth is filled with robbery through them.”

The problem is this: Nachmandies points out the God cited ‘robbery and fraud’ as the reason for the Flood.  What about all the other sins of morality that are the generally-accepted reasons for the Flood?  He cites the Talmud from Sanhedrin 108b which teaches us that the prohibition against theft and robbery is intuitive and logical.  Other moral issues are not always so intuitive and rational so, the Talmud teaches us, that when the people sinned by stealing, they really should have known better.  That was the ‘final straw’ that gave God the reason to Flood the earth.

When you think of it, the Sages were right.  People will go to all sorts of lengths to hide their monetary sins.  People steal, they cheat, they get too much change and don’t give it back, and they offer the ‘finders keepers losers weepers’ defense.  In fact, most people will only admit to monetary sins if they get caught or sued.  Bernie Madoff is a good example.

It is said that Rabbi Israel Salanter, one of the greats of the Mussar Movement was so careful in avoiding the sin of falling victim to stealing that once when he paid an unexpected visit to a former student who was now a banker, the student saw him coming, ran out of the room to get properly dressed and left his money  box open since he was in such a rush.  Rabbi Salanter saw the open box and remembering that our Sages taught “rubam b’gzal’– given the opportunity to steal, most people will – he jumped out the window and ran away!

Beyond the prevalence of monetary stealing, there is a wide variety of other types as well.  Plagiarism is what the Rabbis call ‘stealing of the mind.’  Without ascription to souces (b’shem omro – speaking in another’s name)  the plagiarist takes credit for someone else’s labor.  Entering a prize pumpkin from your neighbour’s farm hardly makes you a winner.  And then there is the stealing of trust, perhaps the most severe form of cheating.  This is the Lance Armstrong theft.

It is obvious to even the most stalwart of Armstrong’s defenders that he cheated and doped his way to so many cycling championships.  Even he has given up trying to defend himself.  The evidence is overwhelming.  That being said, those who trusted him have been duped by his dope.  His reputation as a liar is as solid as his reputation as a cancer survivor and supporter of cancer causes.  He stole wins from those who did not dope and who played by the rules.  He stole trust from those who put their own reputations on the line in their support of him.  He stole from all those who looked to him as an example of what a devoted and gifted athlete could do without drugs.  In truth, he was just another cheater and not so great, after all.

Our Sages said that anyone who goes chasing after glory can never really catch it.  Stealing is just another form of chasing after it.  Often the thief gets caught.  Sometimes they don’t.  But the truth is that often the thief loses all s/he has gotten because the ‘eye is not content with seeing.’

Lance Armstrong should have jumped out the window.  The sad irony is, should he have jumped, those who cheated with dope would have lost it all and he, dopeless, may very well have been declared the real winner of the races he may have lost.  Those who did not cheat did not win.  Yet, I have immense respect for their decision to play fair.  Those who cheated won by stealing and, in the end, lost it all.

Lance Armstrong will live the rest of his life with an asterisk by his name.  His theft has netted him exactly one grammatic mark and one noun: Thief.