The flood lasted forty days on the earth. (Bereshith 7:17)
It was not by chance that the Flood lasted exactly forty days. The world
was destroyed by the Flood because of gezel (theft), and the gematria
(numerical value) of the word gezel is 40. God chose a punishment that
would show a clear association between the Flood and the theft that was so
rampant in the world.(1)
There was another important message in how that generation was punished.
Countless drops of rain fall simultaneously, yet each one has its own
path, and does not enter the path of any other drop. In the same way,
people must realize that everyone’s possessions were given to him by God,
and no one has a right to touch any property that is not his.(2)
A silver cup was once stolen from a guest of Mar Zutra. Shortly following
the theft, Mar Zutra happened to notice someone washing his hands in
preparation for prayer and wiping his hands on a towel that did not belong
to him. Recognizing that this act showed a lack of regard for the property
of others, Mar Zutra interrogated him concerning the whereabouts of his
guest’s cup. The suspect admitted that he was guilty of having stolen the
cup. Although that individual had been in the midst of doing a mitzvah,
Mar Zutra recognized that his use of another’s belongings without
permission was a sign that he had been the perpetrator of the crime.(3)
As soon as someone starts to touch other people’s money, he has planted
the seed of full-fledged thievery. If one has even the slightest doubt as
to whether taking a certain item would be considered therefore not, Rav
Yisrael Salanter has provided us with the general rule: “Taking anything
that is not yours is considered theft.”(4)
1. Kli Yakar on Bereshith 7:17.
2. Kli Yakar on Bereshith 6:17.
3. Bava Metzia 24a, according to Lev Eliyahu, Shemoth p. 211.