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
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
"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