The Torah in Parashat Noach (6:11) famously tells that God decided to bring a flood to destroy the earth upon seeing that the world had become filled with “chamas” (literally, “aggression,” or “violence”). Rashi, based on the Gemara (108a), explains the word “chamas” to mean “theft,” and this crime, the Gemara comments, is what sealed the decree of annihilation.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 31:4) adds that both the thieves themselves and their victims were deemed guilty of “theft” and thus worthy of being punished. The thieves, of course, were guilty of literal theft, which the Midrash terms “chimus mamon” – “monetary aggression,” forcibly seizing that which belonged to others. The victims, by contrast, were guilty of “chimus devarim” – “verbal aggression.” Apparently, they committed a “crime” by the way they responded to the real crimes committed against them.
The obvious question arises, why would a victim’s grievance and outcry constitute a crime? Why would the victims of theft in Noach’s time be punishable for verbally expressing outrage against those who victimized them?
The Alter of Slobodka explained the Midrash’s comment to mean that the victims’ outrage was exaggerated and incommensurate with the crime. They reacted even to minor offenses with vicious rage, as though a major crime was committed against them. And this overreaction amounted to “chimus devarim” – verbal aggression, unwarranted hateful speech. While it is certainly acceptable and legitimate to express grievances and voice complaints against wrongful conduct, this must be done reasonably, appropriately, and in a manner proportionate to the offense. Overreacting to a wrongful action is itself a wrongful action – even if that overreaction involves merely words.
Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm eloquently developed the Alter’s teaching, formulating what he termed an “ethic of protest”:
The sin of the robbed, he [the Alter] tells us, was in over-reaction: the criminal may have stolen from them a dollar, but their outcry, their weeping, their lamentation, their indignation, was of the order of a man from whom a thousand dollars had been stolen. They were over-indignant. True, an injury was done to them, but their protest was incommensurate with the degree of that injury. This excess of the protest over the wrong was in itself an injustice. It…constituted a kind of psychological aggression, a violent moral assault on and abuse of a man who was less guilty than that of which he was accused. So that those who were the prey of the thieves are themselves condemned of a form of violence no less culpable because it was more subtle.
…Our religion has never consented to passivity in the face of evil. It has always preached resistance to wrong and to injustice… Certainly…there ought to be criticism and protest — but never immoderately. The reaction must always correspond to the action, the protest to the injustice. An extravagant reaction is in itself, in its extremism, an act of injustice against one who does not deserve that extent of protest. Hence, what our tradition teaches us is – an ethic of protest… Now, there is much that is wrong and corrupt and rotten in our society and culture that deserves objection, remonstration, dissent, and criticism. But there is such a thing as an ethic of protest… In excess, moral energy produces immoral results…
Both in our personal lives, as well as when it comes to broader societal problems, we must avoid “chimus devarim” – verbal overreaction to wrongful behavior. While it is often legitimate, and even important, to express grievances, this must be done in a manner that is suitable to the situation, and victims must never reserve for themselves the right to do or say anything he wishes by virtue of their being victims. Even if our grievances are valid, we must respond appropriately, without expressing exaggerated outrage over relatively minor offenses.