Mike had a bountiful harvest that year; he filled his wicker basket to the brim with plump green beans and went off to the marketplace. There were lots of stalls filled with all sorts of produce, each merchant loudly hawking his wares. Mike found a small empty spot between baskets of onions and a bushel of carrots and set down his basket. Soon his voice joined the raucous din.

Mike was excited to see so many customers crowding around him, but surprisingly, each person took just one bean. Soon Mike noticed that his basket was empty, along with his purse. Oh no! How could that be? It was then that he realized not one of his customers had paid him.

Mike sped off to the judge, listing all the people who had taken beans. “There was David and Sam and Michelle and Howard and Charmaine and ... .” The judge took out a clean sheet of paper and pen, listed all the names and asked Mike how many beans each one of them had taken. Mike replied in confusion: “Only one—each of them took only one bean.” The judge ripped up the paper and sadly told Mike that he couldn’t help him since each bean was worth less than a penny.

Mike wailed all the way home.

What did Howard, Michelle, Sam, Charmaine and David do afterwards with their beans? Just what can you do with a single bean? They tossed it into the trash without another thought.

This was the situation in the world during the time before the Great Flood. The generation was awash with theft. Moreover, people stole in a deliberate, devious fashion so they couldn’t even be prosecuted in a court of law. There was no excuse for their behavior as the perpetrators didn’t even benefit from their theft; their only goal was to cause damage and distress. This is one reason why the generation of the Flood deserved to be completely annihilated.

We encounter another degenerate generation later in the parshah—one that built the Tower of Babel. We find various traditions as to their intent:

According to Rashi, the foremost medieval commentator, they said: “[G‑d] has no right to select the heavenly regions exclusively for Himself; let us ascend to the skies and make war upon Him.”1

The Targum Yerushalmi explains that the tower was to be crowned by the form of a man holding a sword in his hand—an act of defiance against the G‑d whom they hoped to overcome.

Their motive was to rebel openly against G‑d Himself, yet they weren’t killed as was the generation of the flood but were dispersed to the four corners of the earth.

How can it be that mere theft brought a much worse punishment than open rebellion against G‑d? We see a similar confusing comparison between the righteous King David and King Ahab of the breakaway Kingdom of Israel.

King David, composer of the book of Psalms, was a truly righteous king who influenced his generation to the extent that they were deeply engrossed in Torah. Yet there were tale-bearers within their ranks—those willing to report David’s whereabouts to King Saul during the years of his hot pursuit, demonstrating a lack of peace and unity among them. For this reason, they didn’t always merit victory at war.

This was in sharp contrast to King Ahab who, together with his wicked wife Jezebel, spread idolatry all over the land. Jezebel hosted their idolatrous prophets daily at her own table and persecuted the pious prophets, those still faithful to G‑d, murdering many; the Prophet Elijah managed to escape with his life to the desert.

Ahab lost his portion in the World to Come for this reason. Conversely, the Midrash states that he successfully vanquished his enemies in the merit of the nation’s complete solidarity and lack of slanderers or talebearers.2

The sages point out that the Babylonian exile, which was punishment for the three sins considered most severe among all 613—idolatry, illicit promiscuity and murder—lasted only 70 years. Indeed, a cursory reading of the 10 Commandments shows G‑d as demanding fierce retribution for one sin: that of idolatry. Yet that exile was immeasurably shorter than our present one, which was decreed as punishment for senseless and unreasonable hatred. Nothing upsets G‑d more than Jews not unified with one another. Even the worst of sins, idolatry, pales in comparison to senseless hatred.

“Did you hear who bought the house on the corner? I hope it isn’t one of ‘those people’ moving in and ruining our neighborhood.”

“They won’t eat our picnic food because they buy only organic produce! What nerve.”

“The colors she wears are so last year.”

We might excuse ourselves by saying, “Did I say something so wrong? He really does eat only organic.” Or “she really does wear such strange clothes, and she’s not even embarrassed by it.”

Pay attention to the resulting conversation. Did your comment bring closeness or alienation? Were you really only explaining why you choose to distance from them?

If you feel a need to teach someone a better way to live his life, do it from a motive of deep, sincere love for that individual’s own welfare. We have learned from the long length of our exile that any distancing or drawing away from others due to superficial differences is worse than all three of the most despicable sins combined.