Thursday, October 7, 2010

Corruption = Destruction

Unfortunately, corruption is everywhere. It seems like almost every day there is some politician or religious leader facing such charges. But why exactly is this caliber of crime so evil?

The generation of Noah was filled with what the Torah calls (ironically) Chamas, which is generally translated as violence or corruption. Rashi comments that it specifically refers to theft. This was the straw that broke the camel's back for Noah's generation and why the destructive flood ensued. Nevertheless, it's easy to overlook all the different forms of stealing. For example, the prohibition against theft in the Ten Commandments actually refers to kidnapping. Other forms of robbery include stealing someone's money or property or trust or time - the list goes on - until the ramifications of thievery lead to the worst form of stealing: murder (i.e. robbing another person of their life). In other words, theft is always the final vice that undoes a society because it leads to a lack of respect for other human beings - something that neither God nor civilization can tolerate for very long.

When someone steals from another person, they have taken more than just some physical item - they have also deprived that person of dignity. Just recall your emotions if you have ever been robbed; you probably felt violated and humiliated. Beyond the material damage the criminal has inflicted, they have also caused humiliation to another human being, which Judaism regards as an extremely serious offense comparable to murder. Thus, it becomes easier to understand why the root of a society's downfall is always corruption. Once people have no regard for others and that which belongs to others, society ceases to function.

Another case in point is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. People falsely attribute their sexual practices as the primary cause of their destruction, but what actually put them over the edge was greed. God is willing to put up with a lot of human frailty, but once people show absolutely no concern for those around them, a civilization forfeits its right to exist. While it's true that we see a lot of corruption in the world today, it doesn't automatically mean the world is going to be destroyed. The ultimate test for a society is not the evil that is done within it (there are always going to be bad apples), but rather how society reacts to that evil. If it's not considered a big deal, we're in big trouble. But as long as it's regarded as ethically wrong, we'll be alright.

Typically, the first Talmudic lesson taught to Jewish children is from tractate Nezikin, which deals with damages, because we want them to understand the importance of preserving other people's property and, in effect, dignity. Still, the best lessons come from our earliest leaders. For example, Abraham attained rightful ownership of a burying place for Sarah by paying an enormous sum, and Moses kept a detailed record of everything that was donated for the Tabernacle. Contrary to the anti-Semitic stereotype, being dishonest with money is antithetical to Jewish values. Furthermore, if someone has engaged in theft, they must return the stolen item (or pay its monetary value) in order to achieve full repentance. In a larger sense, by restoring the material item, the thief is also restoring honor to the victim, and ultimately restoring God-based ethics to society.

One last piece of information should put this all into perspective. According to the Sages, the first question asked of a person after they die is, "Were you honest in your business dealings?" The answer to this question reveals more about a person's character than perhaps anything else. If someone is honest in how they make a living, is generous with what God has given them, and does not take that which God has given to someone else, they are operating their lives along the most fundamental ethical principle: treating others how they would like to be treated. Since this value is the foundation of our existence, staying far away from corruption will also keep us far away from destruction.

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