chamas: stealing less than a prutah.
(Rav Moshe Feinstein defined this in the 1980s as less than an American nickel.)
Why was this such a problem?
Let's say someone sells peanuts from a cart. If throughout the day, 200 people take a few peanuts in amounts worth less than a prutah, they effectively steal a large portion - if not all - of the seller's merchandise.
Yet you cannot take sue someone in court for less than a prutah, halachically speaking. So this was non-prosecutable behavior.
And it was completely widespread.
Theoretically, you could spend your days taking a prutah from here and a prutah from there and quite enjoy yourself.
The problem is, this minuscule amount adds up over time.
And if everyone is doing it, well, there is no way to make an honest living for the seller.
Furthermore, the Kli Yakar explains that people did this in front of the judges, which is a smirky and brazen thing to do. You can imagine the impotent rage of the seller as he is continuously robbed as a judge stands there, yet no one can do a darn thing about it because each person takes less than a prutah.
The Kli Yakar explains:
"And with this reason even a sinner stood in the congregation of the tzaddikim and said, 'I am a tzaddik like you'."
That's not surprising, is it? We see this all the time nowadays. (Think of how many people download copyrighted movies, music, and books without paying for them -- and don't even think that it's wrong or stealing.)
But the Kli Yakar's continuation IS surprising because he says that the righteous people agreed with them!: "Both dared to say, 'I am like you'."
In Hebrew: כמוני כמוך
Literally: "We are exactly the same."
But they weren't.
And despite the moral equalizing on both sides, Hashem wasn't fooled (of course!).
As the Kli Yakar states: "...it was obvious before Hashem Yitbarach who was the tzaddik and who was the rasha."
And isn't it interesting to learn that there were people who could be classified as tzaddikim in that generation?
I didn't know that.
I thought Noach was the lone tzaddik.
And chanifah is forbidden outright in the Torah.
Sure, you can give people chizuk; you can tell a sinner that he or she isn't innately bad, but has merely done a bad thing. You can speak about the sublimeness of the human soul and how it's possible to reach deep down and scrub it all clean. You can also say, "It's not that bad" - IF it's really not that bad and the other person is being too hard on herself.
But you can't say it's not bad at all.
You can't say it's okay when it's halachically not.
And you can't say that the permitted is forbidden.
You can't look at a rasha and say, "Hey, we're the same, bro!"
That's not humility - that's a lie. That's chanifah.
Yet isn't that what many well-intended and good-hearted people do today?
We Aren't Perfect, But We Also Aren't the Same
It's both easy and more comfortable to float into that mentality that says, "They just don't know any better. They mean well. They're basically good people."
Yet Liberals/Leftists go around supporting abortion, pseudoscience, anti-Israel policies, harmful immigration policies, socialist economic policies - policies that kill people, or at the very least, kill their livelihood and economic standing.
And they attack or mock or reject or ignore anyone who doesn't think like them.
And they refuse to listen to or discuss anything that opposes their ideas.
And they think it's okay because they're brainwashed into thinking that these are the compassionate ideas to follow and that this is the best way to act.
And like the prutah-snatchers of the Flood Generation, they do it all right in front of both the "judge" and the victim.
- Pro-abortion people will pressure a pregnant woman to have an abortion who doesn't want an abortion if the pro-abortion proponent has decided that it's the best solution.
- Family members will speak in front of a seemingly unconscious relative in a hospital about that person's death, plugging or unplugging them from life support, and even argue about inheritance - even though evidence has shown that the vegetative person can often understand everything, even if he can't respond.
- Anti-Israel mules will tell Jews living in Eretz Yisrael to concede to their attackers. They will pressure Eretz Yisraeli Jews to empathize with their murderers even as those Jews are still in mourning over their murdered brothers and sisters. With heartfelt sympathy, they will tell Eretz Yisrael Jews regarding their Jihad-thirsty neighbors, "I hope you guys will all be able to make peace with each other soon." Which is like a telling a violated woman, "I hope you and your assailant will be able to make peace with each other soon and just learn to get along. Ya know?"
- A Leftist will tell American policeman - while those policeman are standing in front of the open grave of a slain colleague - that there is bigotry in the police department (i.e., blaming the murdered cop for his own murder), and "not to dismiss peaceful protestors as troublemakers or paranoid" ("peaceful protestors" being the people who sympathize or even actively encourage the cop killers).
And how many times have you had to sit through a family get-together or a co-worker discussion or a university class and bite your lip while people openly yapped about the "virtues" of harmful Leftist values - biting your lip because you know that if you say anything, no matter how sensitively and tactfully, you'll "ruin" everything and cause "unnecessary" unpleasantness? (And that no one is interested or will listen anyway?)
And how many times have you been shut up by a smirk, a hostile stare, or a derisive comment or a dismissive response (accompanied by the person turning their back and leaving the room) when you "forgot" yourself and innocently mentioned God or a pro-life organization or a pro-Israel position or a Torah value in a positive light?
Yet how many times do we try to find common ground with them - just because? How many times do we consider them as good as us - and perhaps even tell them so - but it's just not true?
"They're doing the best they can with the tools they have." - That's true in one sense. But many of them just aren't trying. They don't even want to try.
Once, I mentioned to her how she was always smart one in our relationship.
She raised an eyebrow and said, "Actually, I always considered YOU the smart one."
I stared at her. "Me?" I said. "But you're the one who got straight A's in honors calculus in 12th grade while I went to summer school after flunking algebra. You have an Ivy League doctorate and I dropped out of college...."
"Well, yeah," she said. "But you think about things."
"So do you," I said.
"No," she said. "Not like you."
"But you and I have had conversations about the meaning of life. And your whole major and career --"
She shook her head. "But I don't really care about those things. I can discuss them intellectually. But you actually care about whether there's a God and the meaning of life and stuff like that."
Completely flabbergasted, I said, "But I thought that you cared, too!"
"No," she said. "If I cared, I probably would've taken the same path you did. I'd probably be an Orthodox Jew, too."
Then I "slipped" and said without thinking, "But how can you not care about these things? How can you not want to think?"
I got a glare in return (oops! just went too far! "exiting the comfort zone" alert!) and that put a halt to the conversation.
If you think about it, the above exchange is actually very disturbing.
They're nice in other ways.
And unity and camaraderie feel so good.
And they may certainly have the potential to be good people - wonderful people, even.
But if they support harmful (or even deadly) policies, if they believe and act according to ideas that are wrong, then they aren't "basically good people."
"Misguided" and "pitiable" and "brainwashed" are better terms.
And of course, the best thing to do is daven for them.
As our Sages said, Noach's big mistake was not davening for his generation.
(Note: This idea is NOT referring to people who are just starting on or in the middle of their spiritual journey. Spiritual progress takes a lifetime and there are many stumbling blocks and pitfalls along the way.)
And I'm not encouraging rejection or hate. Neither is the Kli Yakar.
And of course we must find virtues in others, even really horrible people.
(See the Kli Yakar's advice in How to Avoid being a Pathological Pollyanna.)
But we must never justify anyone's bad behavior (including our own) or label someone what they're not. (Again, see the above Kli Yakar.)
The Torah says this, not me.
Remember, the tzaddikim of the Flood Generation accepted the reshaim as spiritual equals.
And look what happened.