The mishnah (Bava Metzia 44a) tells us that if one makes a business deal and started the transaction by giving money – but not yet making a proper kinyon (acquisition) and then he changes his mind and backs out (which, even though he is wrong for doing it, frees him from the deal)– he is given a curse: “The one who exacted retribution from the people of the Generation of the Flood and from the Generation of the Dispersion, He will ultimately exact retribution from someone who does not abide by one’s word.” What needs explanation is, though these two generations suffered spectacular punishments, there are many other times when Hashem has punished nations in a spectacular fashion. Why did Chazal use these two examples of retribution as opposed to any other?
There is a joke told about a man taking a ride in a taxi. He watched from the back seat as the cabby consistently zoomed through red lights, yet at the green lights, he would stop, look both ways, and then proceed with caution. The passenger finally asked the driver for an explanation of this peculiar practice. He was told “My brother is also a taxi driver who also goes through red lights, so when it is green for me, I have to make sure that my brother will not be going through his red light.” The point of this joke is, when the people are going against society’s laws, it clogs up things and brings chaos to the entire society. These kinds of social wrongs erode the fabric of society itself to the point that it may be necessary to “reboot” society and start all over again. In Egypt and at other times, people sinned which were deserving of punishment, and indeed sometimes extremely severe punishment. Yet the society was still rectifiable. However, by the Generation of the Flood and the Generation of the Dispersion, their sins corrupted society to the point of no return.
At the time of the flood people were stealing in a way that was “legal” (Chamas), with each stealing a miniscule amount and thereby depleting the victim’s possessions. Such a society must be eradicated, and must start again. I have recently heard that similar crimes exist in the inner cities of modern America, with “flash mobs” of dozens of youths descending on convenience stores at a predetermined time, with each one smiling into the security camera as they steal a few candy bars or packs of cigarettes – for they know that the police force either won’t be able to catch them all, or even if they do, the punishment for such a petty theft would be almost meaningless.
By picking these two examples as their basis for the curse, Chazal are telling us that a person who does not fulfill his obligation to consummate his purchase, though he has already gone halfway through the process, is on the threshold of eroding his own character. This is the message that we must keep in mind: Though Hashem promised that there will not be another flood, He may still force a “reboot” to the entire life of the one who backs out of a deal, so that he should be able to function properly in the world in which he lives.