Shimon HaTzakik was of the remnants (last members) of the Great Assembly. He used to say: On three things the world stands. On Torah, on Service of G-d, and on deeds of kindness.
After understanding the concept of the pillars upon which the wrold stands, we can now better understand the Gemara in Sanhedrin (74a) that teaches us: There are three cardinal sins in Judaism that require “yeihareig v’al ya’avor,” give up your life rather than violate. The three are:
- “Avodah zarah” — Idol worship;
- “Giylui arayoth” — Incestuous sexual relations and adultery;
- “Shfichuth damim” — Murder. Why should these three specific sins require one to forfeit his life (while in the rest of the Torah we have a principle (Vayikra 18:5) “v’chai bahem,” that the Mitzvoth are given in order to live, and if they lead to death, G-d’s preference is that they be violated — Sanhedrin 74a, Yoma 85a)?
Each of these three sins is the polar opposite of one of the three pillars upon which the existence of the world stands.
“Avodah Zarah” is obviously the opposite of “Avodah.” Rather than devoting himself to service of the Creator, he devotes himself to service of false gods and values.
“Sfichuth damim,” where one KILLS another human being, depriving him of his most basic possession, his life, is obviously the polar opposite of “gemiluth chassadim” where one gives of himself and his possessions to another, something which he is not required to do.
“Giylui arayoth” is the polar opposite of Torah. Sexual impropriety is man behaving in his most animalistic form, deviating from his humanity, while Torah is the elevation of man’s humanity to the Divine. The Torah considers the fundamental source of sexual deviance to be the animal and material side of man (the “chomer”) which is illustrated by the type of sacrifice a woman suspected of adultery must bring. (Instead of wheat, which is considered human food, she brings barley, which is the food of animals. See Bamidbar 5:15 and Sotah 9a.) Chazal also see an allusion to the abdication of intellectual control that accompanies any sin, but particularly one of a sexual nature, in the verse (Bamidbar 5:12) “Ki thisteh…” which introduces the crime of adultery. The word “thisteh” has at its root “shoteh” which means a fool, devoid of intelltual clarity, indicating that it is a loss of the intellect, the indentifying trait of man over an animal, that precedes submission to sexual temptation. Sexual deviation, an act emanating from the purely materialistic side of man, stands in direct opposition to Torah, which embodies the most intellectual/spiritual side of man.
Man’s entire being depends on the existence of the three foundations of the world. Since each of these three sins undermines one of those foundations, violating any one of them would be man destroying his own existence. His violation would be simply another form of death (a classic lose-lose situation…). So the preference is that he leave this world without sinning, rather than “leave the world” through sin. Yeihareig — he should (passively) allow himself to be killed — v’lo ya’avor — and he should not actively violate a prohibition that undermines his entire existence.
From the above we understand why the “dor hamabul,” the generation of Noach that was destroyed by the flood, was not destroyed until they had committed all three of these cardinal sins, thereby undermining every aspect and justification of their existence. Chazal teach us (Sanhedrin 57a) on the verse (Breishith 6:11) “Vatishacheit ha’aretz lifnei Ha’Elokim,” — the land was “destroyed” before G-d — that the word “hashchatha” refers to sexual deviance and idol worship. (See Devarim 4:17 and Breishith 6:12.) Here was the undermining of two pillars of the world, Torah and Avodah. In addition, there was “gezel,” robbery, as it is written “vatimalei ha’aretz chamas.” This is the opposite of “gemiluth chassadim.” Rather than giving someone from your resources, you take his resources for yourself.
When the generation had uprooted all three foundations of the world’s existence, through behaviour that contradicted them, there was no means of support for the world, and destruction resulted.
There is one seeming inconsistency which needs to be explained. Earlier we stated that the opposite of gemiluth chassadim was murder, while here we have stated that it is robbery.
When the Torah speaks about the society undermining the foundation of gemiluth chassadim, this refers to robbery. When we speak about the individual opposing that foundation, it refers to murder. It is impossible to have the ENTIRE society undermine the foundation of gemiluth chassadim through murder, for this would be an overt destruction of that society, and the Torah describes an existing society involved in underming that foundation of the world. It must refer to a less serious activity that also stands in opposition to gemiluth chassadim, which would be robbery. It is very possible for the entire society to be involved in robbery, where everyone is stealing from everyone else, and this is the only way that the entire society can be undermining that foundation. The INDIVIDUAL’s action which stands in direct opposition to that foundation, however, is the complete destruction of another, murder.
(A note should be added here about a seeming inconsistency in the discussions about the verses in Breishith 6:11 and 13. The Torah writes that the earth was filled with “chamas.” The halachic definition of chamas refers to a person FORCING another to SELL him one of his possessions, paying full price for it. “Gezel,” robbery, is when one takes the object without compensating the owner; chamas is when one takes the object while providing compensation. (See Bava Kama 62a.) So it is difficult to understand how Rashi comments on verse 11, which states that the world was filled with “chamas.” by explaining that it means “gezel.” They are two very different activities! And in his explanation of our Mishna, the Maharal, too, seems to ignore the very real difference between the two crimes.
(The Maharal, in “Gur Aryeh,” his commmentary on Rashi, raises the question and provides a wonderful and precise answer. It is unlikely that the members of the society were so meticulous as to always pay for the objects that they violently took. They certainly took what they wanted without providing compensation. But since the next day the victim would turn around and steal something else from the person who stole from him, this victim actually did receive compensation. The accepted norm of the society which tolerated robbery ensured that every victim recieved compensation by virtue of his being able to steal from someone else. Every robber ultimately provided compensation to his victim through his own property which was stolen from him. So Rashi is telling us that the “chamas” that was filling the land was actual “gezel” — on a mass scale.)