Timely Torah

‘Filled with Hamas’: This week’s portion contains the verse of the moment

In Short

The Hebrew term for 'violence,' a homophone of the terror group that committed the Oct. 7 attacks, shows us the need to combat evil whenever it appears

The devolution of humanity, begun so immediately in last week’s Torah portion with the eating of the fruit and then the murder of Abel, continues to spiral this week, leading to the story of the great flood in which God seeks to eradicate evil by destroying all but the righteous Noah and his family.

The Torah, according to the most recent Jewish Publication Society translation, frames the context for the flood this way: 

“The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness” (Genesis 6:11).

The word translated “lawlessness” is variously rendered elsewhere. The medieval commentator Rashi associated it with mere “theft.” Everett Fox uses “wrongdoing.” Robert Alter chooses “outrage.” Perhaps the most common, used in most Christian translations and in the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation, is “violence.”

But this week, I prefer not to translate it at all: “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with hamas.”

It is hardly the first time I’ve noticed that this word is a homophone of the name of a certain terrorist group. (Full disclosure: the terror group’s name in modern Hebrew is rendered chet-mem-aleph-samech, adding a silent aleph that does not appear in the Torah’s “chamas.”) But it was never quite like now, when I still find myself reeling from the shock and horror of the Hamas attack.

But appalling as what happened in the border communities around Gaza, it is terrifying to contemplate the demonstrations worldwide in support — indeed in celebration — of Hamas. And as terrifying as it is to contemplate those celebrations, it is yet more frightening to consider the moral complacency with which so many persons of presumed stature in academia responded. The earth is filled with Hamas.

I don’t want to overstate the case, because we have certainly also seen enormous outpourings of revulsion at what Hamas did and heartening commitments of support from many nations. Yet the depravity of Hamas is far too much amplified by the decadence of those who will not condemn evil when they see it.

We already hear the voices of moral equivalence — that perhaps what Hamas did was wrong but surely understandable, while Israel’s retaliation comes unjustifiably at the expense of innocents. To fight terror is to become a terrorist.

But the voice of God comes in our portion to counter that false claim. “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for before them, the earth is filled with Hamas, and here, I am going to destroy the earth” (6:13). There is evil, and God endeavors to destroy it, the good with the bad, sparing only the family of one righteous man.

After the flood, soothed by the sweet scent of Noah’s offering, God forges a covenant with Noah and his sons to never again destroy all life, human and animal, at once, despite acknowledging that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from his youth.” It is a promise, yes, but also an admission that evil will live on even in the seed of the righteous Noah. “Who sheds the blood of man, that man’s blood will be shed, for man was created in God’s image” (9:6).

Almost immediately, one of Noah’s sons behaves decadently toward his father. Then we read of the Tower of Babel, where mankind so quickly fell into hubris. These early tales in Genesis are a study in humanity’s inclination to evil — an inclination that even God is unable to neutralize, but against which God unceasingly struggles throughout the Torah.

As Jews, we often invoke a rabbinic maxim in recognizing our own limitations in perfecting the world:

“You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:16).

The earth is filled with Hamas. It will always be. But we are not free to desist from eradicating it. 

Arthur Sandman is chief of staff of the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.