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The Primordial Sin
What was the sin of the Generation of the Flood? Rabbi Yochanan said: Come and see how great is the sin of robbery. For the Generation of the Flood had transgressed everything, and yet their final decree was not sealed until they had engaged in robbery." (Sanhedrin 108).
Robbery, or at least its driving force, is perhaps the most basic violation, the evil that leads to all other evils. The act of forcefully taking something that belongs to someone else is about seeing something that you want, and acting to satisfy your desire in disregard of the other person who has a rightful claim to the object. This is at the core of almost all other evildoing. It is the attitude that “there is only one person in the world that matters, and that is me. As long as I don't get caught, I am entitled to do anything I want to do to satisfy my desires, to serve my own interests.” In short, it is about seeing everything outside of yourself as either an object of your desire or as an obstacle to your satisfying that desire.
Let us consider some of the sins leading up to the Flood. In the verse immediately preceding God's decision to bring the flood we are told, "And the benei ha'elohim, sons of the greats, saw the daughters of man, that they were comely, and they took for themselves wives from all that they chose." The women were objects of desire, these men who had power saw what they wanted and took it. What is rape and sexual abuse if not the turning of the other person into an object of your desire, to be taken without concern for the humanity of that other person? And what is adultery if not the treating of the other partner as merely an obstacle to the satisfying of your desires, an annoyance to be disregarded, to be lied to, to be dehumanized?
Going back further, we move from sexual sin to murder. Why did Cain kill Abel? The Midrash tells us that it was about world domination.
What were they arguing about? They said: Come let us divide the world.... One said: The land on which you are standing is mine. The other replied: The clothes you are wearing are mine. One said: Take them off! The other said: Get off! In the course of this Cain rose up against Abel and killed him. (Breishit Rabbah 22:16).
You have something I want, you are in my way, so I will kill you to get it. Now, according to the simple reading of the text, it was not a desire to own the world that motivated Cain, but jealousy of Abel as the favored of God. True, it is not always about property. Sometimes it is about honor, feeling good about yourself, not being made to feel unworthy. It still all boils down to the same thing. This other person is in my way, his very existence is a nuisance and an irritant to me. I am the only person who matters, ergo he must be killed. With such an attitude, Cain, in his killing of Abel, had actually achieved his goal - to live in a world where he was the only person who existed.
Ultimately this brings us back to the Creation story and first sin of humankind. In the Garden of Eden, Adam could have eaten from any tree he chose. Just one tree was off limits, was not his for the taking. The first sin, the primordial sin, was seeing, wanting, taking. "And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was desirous to the eyes... and she took from its fruit and she ate."
This point was made in a powerful visceral way in the movie Noah, where the image of the hand taking the forbidden fruit was interspersed throughout the film, appearing alongside horrific acts of coveting and violent taking, of rape and of murder. Appearing, that is, whenever the first, primordial sin was being repeated.
When human beings were created they were given the mandate to "subdue the earth and have dominion over it". To do such is to project ourselves into the world, just as God had done when God created the world. If this is all there is, however, then the world is nothing but us. No one else exists. I fill the world. It is all here to satisfy my desires.
But creation was more than that. Part of creation was tzimtzum, God's contracting of Godself. Not only was this true before creation, in order to make space for creation to occur, but it was also a feature of the creation as well. When God came to create humans, God pulled back: "Let us create the human in our image." God made this a collaborative effort. And God created something that was not just an object. God created a person, a person who had will, who had free choice that even God could not, or would not, control.
And so it was with the creation of Eve. For Eve to exist, Adam was forced to make himself smaller, to have a side taken from him. When we pull back and make space for others, when we treat others as subjects, not objects of our self-gratification, then paradoxically, this pulling back makes us not less, but more. "Thus shall a man leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they will be as one flesh." When he cleaves to his wife as an equal, as "flesh of his flesh", as one equivalent to him, then it is not he who becomes one flesh, it is not the integrating of the other into oneself, but rather they who become one flesh. Having made space for the other, they both became a greater whole.
Stealing is indeed the ultimate sin. It is the sin of seeing, desiring and taking. It is the sin of seeing all others as objects. What is the corrective of this sin? It is to learn restraint; it is to honor the limits set by morality and set by God; it is to treat others not as objects, but as co-equal subjects to oneself.
When the world starts over, God gives commandments to Noach, forbidding murder and the eating of animal blood. These commandments are meant to curb man's most destructive impulses and to teach a respect for all life, even animal life.
We are thus set on a course that will hopefully lead to a better world, to a more just world. This starts with recognizing the humanity of those around us. And what about achieving greater moral sensitivity, learning to respect the property, feelings, privacy and dignity of others? What about the pulling back that is necessary not because of ethical mandates but because of limits that God has set? The realization of this would have to wait until the next epoch of history, the choosing of Avraham whose mission it would be to spread God's name and to bring God into the world.
From the movie Noah (2014)