In Parshat Noach, the straw that broke the camel’s back and caused God to destroy the world is found in Breisheet 6:11, “…the earth was filled with chamas”, translated by Rashi as gezel (robbery).
When the earth was corrupt (vatishachet) with lewdness and idolatry, God was not ready to destroy it. How did “chamas” push God over the edge to take action?
Nehama Leibowitz explains:
“Chamas” is capable of demoralising all that is good in human nature and acts as an inexorable barrier between man and his maker.
We read in Shmot Raba 22:4:
Thus said Job (Job 16:17) “Not for any “chamas” in my hands: my prayer is pure”. Is there a prayer that is impure? He who prays to God with hands soiled by “chamas” is not answered. Why? Because his prayer is impure as it is said: “And God said, the end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with “chamas.” Since Job never committed any robbery, his prayer was pure.
Just a few weeks ago, during the closing moments of Yom Kippur we recited the Neila prayer and read the following sentence twice (in the paragraphs following the final “Al Chet” prayer): “Lema’an nechdal m’oshek yadenu”, “we cease from oppression of our hands.”
The only transgression that is specifically singled out in the Neilah service is robbery. On a daily basis you don’t see shul-goers pick pocketing or holding up banks at gunpoint so why is there an extra focus on robbery?
The prayer reminds us that we must follow the correct path which includes paying workers on time, paying for all of the benefits that employees are legally entitled to, paying off pledges and other financial obligations on time, reporting earnings, not cheating the tax authority, not borrowing from a friend without their permission, not being lax in returning borrowed objects etc. All of these “white collar transgressions” fall under the category of robbery.
Transgressions between a person and their fellow person are not forgiven by God. They can only be forgiven by the person who was wronged. If we want our prayers to be accepted, we must do tshuva (repent). Even at the last moment of Yom Kippur, we are reminded that if we did not do proper tshuva before Yom Kippur we are not off the hook. We must commit to make amends in the category of robbery by paying off what is owed and take it upon ourselves to handle these situations differently in the future.
As we start off the New Year, this is the time to make resolutions of how we will conduct ourselves here on in, avoiding transgressions associated with robbery which brought about the flood and destroyed the world.