What lead to the decay of society that brought about the flood in the time of Noah? The rabbis of the midrash identified what seems to be a tiny defect. Yet, it had catastrophic consequences.

“And the world was full of chamas from before them.” (Bereishit 6:13) What is chamas? Said Rabbi Chanina, chamas is the theft of an item worth less than a perutah (a small coin.) A person would set up his stall of beans in the market. Someone would come by and run off with a bean. The amount was too small to be recoverable in law. Then another would come by and run off with a bean. And so on. (Midrah Bereishit Rabba 31:5)

The theft of trivial amounts was indicative of an outlook in the world. People at that time had the attitude of “what can I get away with?” By deviously stealing amounts that were below the limit that the legal authorities would be invoked, they insidiously undermined the cohesion of society. They came to persuade themselves that was simply nothing wrong in what they were doing.

By only thinking of themselves and their own needs, the generation of the flood unraveled the cohesion of society. The drip-drip corruption, that was left untrammeled, became a flood. Literally.

The lessons are only too relevant in our own time. In Rabbi Lord Sacks’ words: “we are the generation whose idol is the self and whose icon is the selfie.” When it comes to our own individual role to deal, for example, with the challenges of climate change or the risks of anti-microbial resistance we will all too easily only think of our personal needs and forget the potential longer-term impact of our actions.

We still have the chance to avert the world-wide risks of rising sea levels and global pandemics. Noah’s generation were deaf to his warnings. Let us not be the same.