Day after day, Harav Dovid Feigenbaum, Hy”d, Rav of the city of Pruznoi, would sit in the unheated, bitterly cold shul. Dressed in a fur coat, rubbing his hands together and gently stomping his feet as he attempted to stay warm, he exchanged a few words with each person who entered the building. With some he discussed chiddushei Torah, with others he shared a story.
One morning, the temperature dropped to 30 degrees below zero. The Rav was sitting as usual in the shul, shaking from the cold and learning Torah.
One of the local Jews approached the Rav with a question. “It is still early in the day; it isn’t yet time for davening. Why doesn’t the Rav go for a little while to his house, which is near the shul and has some heat?” he asked. “I and the Rav’s other visitors would be happy to speak to the Rav there and not make him suffer from this terrible cold.”
The Rav replied by recounting an experience.
“Some time ago, I was sitting in my heated house, learning, when I heard someone knocking on the door. I called out, ‘Yes, please enter!’ There was no answer, and I heard footsteps [walking away from the door]. I once again called out loudly, ‘Come in!’ There was no answer. I rose from my place, opened the door, and saw a person walking away. I caught up with him and heard him crying. I understood that he had been coming to tell me his tale of woe, all too common in these dark times. I asked him to come into my house, and he calmed down and entered. I asked why he had turned around and begun to walk away. He told me that he had knocked and had not heard a response. He assumed that I was unable to accept visitors at the time, and so he left.”
Reb Dovid continued. “A Yid comes in these most difficult of times to me to pour out his heart; with what can I help him? Money I do not have, food I do not have, either. The only type of help I can offer is to listen to the sighs of a Yid and to share in his sorrow, comfort him and encourage him. Now, if a Yid comes and find the door closed and is ashamed to knock, or if he knocks and does not hear a response, he will return home with the pain in his heart. How can I allow this to happen?
“Therefore, I decided to sit here in the open shul and to suffer from the cold. Thus, every Yid who enters the shul can find me at once and pour out his heart to me.”
In the end, it all came down to robbery.
Mankind had committed every sin imaginable, transgressed every commandment and descended to the worst levels of immorality and decadence. But what sealed their verdict and ultimately brought the Mabul was robbery.
At first glance this seems surprising. While stealing is a very serious sin, it isn’t generally considered to be the most terrible of all the possible transgressions.
Harav Yisrael Spira, the Bluzhever Rebbe, zy”a, explains that this is precisely the point. When a person commits a sin that is broadly recognized as dreadful, he may eventually regret his misdeed and repent. But when he is convinced that he didn’t do anything so terribly wrong, he is much less likely to do teshuvah.
Because that generation didn’t recognize the gravity of stealing, it ultimately sealed their fate.
The Tiferes Shlomo cites the Midrash which discusses the time that Avraham Avinu met his ancestor Shem, the son of Noach.
“[In what merit] were you saved from the waters of the Mabul?” Avraham Avinu asked.
Shem revealed that it was in the merit of the kindness Noach and his family had shown the various animals and birds that were with them in the teivah, whom they fed and cared for with great devotion.
“In this merit Hashem had mercy on us!” Shem concluded.
Had the generation of the Mabul exhibited kindness and mercy to each other, they would have evoked Heavenly mercy as well. Instead, they did the precise opposite — they stole from each other, and this sealed their fate.
Showing kindness to our fellow is the key to evoking Heavenly kindness. For some this is done by opening their wallets and pocketbooks to those in need; for others, it is accomplished by means of the equally great chessed of offering a listening ear and an open heart — and showering care and compassion on those in pain.