LION’S LESSON: PARSHAT NOACH by Shira Smiles
When the flood was over and all living things on the earth had perished, the Torah tells us, “Vayishaer ach Noach … – That only Noach and those with him in the Ark remained.” The word “ach/only” always implies diminution, limiting, lessening. While it is obvious from the narrative that the only ones remaining were Noach and everyone in the ark with him, the addition of the word “ach” seems superfluous, that is unless Noach himself had also been diminished in some way. The Medrash picks up on this extraneous word and tells us that indeed Noach himself was diminished. Having all those creatures in the ark with him made him responsible for feeding them for the whole year during which they were thus confined. One time, Noach was a bit late feeding the lion. The lion kicked him in response, leaving Noach with an injury that left him less than whole and healthy.
This seems rather harsh for Noach who was busy with this task 24/7 for a whole year. Could one really blame him for being late one time, asks Rabbi Dunner in Mikdash Halevi. But this was exactly what Hashem required of him at this moment, and by delaying, he failed in this task. At this point, we could ask ourselves how often we also delay when we are required to take action.
But Noach’s responsibility was deeper than just feeding the animals in the ark, notes Rav Asher Druck in Aish Tamid. He was responsible for the perpetuation of the species. These were the last two lions left, and the last of every species. If he failed to care for them properly, they would become extinct. The lion’s kick reminded Noach of that deeper responsibility. Rabbi Weinberger in Shemen Hatov finds a modern day equivalent to this responsibility. The destruction of this past generation was the Holocaust after which Torah learning and the Jewish way of life were in danger of extinction. It took great men like Rav Aharon Kotler, the Ponovich Rebbe and others to take on the responsibility of rebuilding the world of Judaism and of working tirelessly toward that end.
In addition to physical diminution, Noach was also diminished spiritually, writes Rabbi Schorr, Halekach Vehalebuv. At the beginning of the parsha, Noach is both tzadik and tamim, righteous and perfect. By neglecting to pray for his generation, he lost his perfection and was just called a tzadik, and upon leaving the ark, he was just Noach. (Later, he was even called an ish adamah, a man of the earth.) We can see that Noach had to rectify himself personally as well as rectify the world he would be a central component in recreating.
The Slonimer Rebbe, the Netivot Shalom, explains that although the world was totally corrupted and depraved, it was only when thievery saturated the world that the decree for destruction was finalized. Taking from others is the antithesis of chesed upon which the world is built and continues to exist. When we treat others with loving kindness, Hashem extends chesed to us in return and grants us life and the necessities of life. Then the Netivot Shalom highlights the greatness of Avraham Avinu in contrast to Noach. According to the Medrash, as a young man Avraham met Shem and asked him in what merit they were sustained while in the ark. Shem replied that they were saved because of the extraordinary chessed they extended to the animals during that time. In fact, continued Shem, when my father Noach was even minimally slack, he was already injured. Hearing this, Avraham set himself his lifelong activity of chesed. He built inns where travelers could eat, sleep and rest. He kept his tent open on all sides to welcome strangers. He even left his sickbed and an audience with Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself to greet strangers. Therefore, did he merit to be the father of many nations who continue the legacy of chesed.
Noach, on the other hand, witnessed the self-centered avariciousness of his generation, yet did nothing to offset this on his own initiative, writes Rav Pinto in Torat Yoshiyahu. He did only exactly what Hashem commanded, If building the ark generated questions from the people, he told them of their wrongdoing, but he initiated nothing on his own. Whereas Avraham prayed for the people of Sodom with whom he had no relationship, Noach didn’t even pray for his neighbors. A person’s success in Torah and mitzvoth depends on his taking the initiative and going above and beyond.
Rabbi Kluger in My Sole Desire points out that Man indeed has an acquisitive nature. He, like the animals, must fill basic physical needs. However, Man was also gifted with a neshama to resemble G-d Himself. Because of this neshama, Man has the ability to act G-dlike and give unselfishly to others. But Hashem desires more of us than just doing chesed, writes Rabbi Frand. He wants us to love chesed, to make it the calling of our lives. It is to this purpose that Hashem put Noach in the ark with all those animals, explains Rabbi Gifter. The ark was to be a school of chesed for Noach and for the future of mankind. That is why Hashem did not take Noach and the rest of the surviving world to Eretz Yisroel or some safe place He would create, but rather placed them all in the ark together, adds the Sifsei Chaim. They needed to learn to repair the lost Divine trait of chesed through their interaction with the animals.
It was not just the routine work of feeding the animals, but the development of the sensitivity to each animal’s unique needs of food, of timing, of method of delivery, etc. The lesson of living in the ark would be extended to mankind forever. When Hashem commands us, “Patoach tiftach et yadcha ,,, Open, you shall surely open your hand,” He wants us to give with sensitivity to our fellow man, for everyone has a different need. It’s not just money, but help in finding a job or a spouse, helping with household repairs, being a comfort in times of need – all these are expressions of chesed, teaches Rabbi Wolbe in Aleh Shor. Only through sensitive chesed can we most readily emulate Hakodosh Boruch Hu and connect with Him through our divine soul. As Rabbi Beyfus points out, Avraham was a master of this trait, as was Ruth who through her manifestation of this trait merited joining the nation of the descendents of Avraham. The two luchot, Tablets of the Law, are equal, one representing the “religious” laws between man and G-d, and the other representing the “social” laws between man and his fellow man. It is only by emulating G-d in interpersonal relationships that we can come closer to G-d spiritually.
In the dire situation during the flood, when G-d’s attribute of judgment was so strong, each moment was important and each lapse magnified, writes Rabbi Lopian in Lev Eliyahu. For this momentary lapse in chesed, Noach became physically maimed and lost the spiritual right to be the High Priest and offer sacrifices to Hashem, a position that then passed to his son Shem, the future Melchizedek King of Shalem. Because the whole dynamics of life on the ark was based on chesed, Noach was judged so harshly whereas in ordinary circumstances such a minor lapse into complacency could be forgivable.
But even in relatively ordinary circumstances, the bar for chesed is very high. Life is about serving others and dedicating oneself completely to this service. Avraham ran to his guests to give them the best he had, while Yehoshua merited being Moshe’s successor because of his constant dedication to serving Moshe and learning from him. Moshe, the man who had the closest relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu, served his people with equal dedication, willing to die rather than be left living alone without his people, notes Letitcha Elyon. Such dedication begins in selfless service to one’s own family. It takes the strength and determination of a lion to learn to serve selflessly, without ulterior motives.
Rabbi Zaidel Epstein provides an interesting alternative interpretation to vayeshaer ach Noach, only Noach was left. Basing his ideas on the Baal Haturim, he notes that “remaining” and “only” implies a double negative, meaning that someone else remained in addition to Noach and his family. Who was this person? This was the giant Og who later became King of Bashan. The numerical equivalent of veyishaer ach equals the numerical equivalent of Og, both equaling 79. According to tradition, Og grabbed onto the ark and held on for the duration of the flood while Noach fed him through the window. Had Og actually been worthy of being saved, Noach would have pulled him into the ark. But he was only saved for a future chesed he would do for Avraham (even though he had ulterior motives). He was the refugee who would tell Avraham that his nephew Lot was being taken captive. Because his chesed would be oral, he merited that Noach fed him through the mouth.
But Noach needed to rectify not only the behavior of society, but his own behavior as well, and improve his own character. As Rabbi Asher Weiss notes, the Prophet Isaiah calls the flood “the waters of Noach” because Noach was at fault for not praying for the survival of his generation. Prayer, even for oneself, and how much more so for others, is considered an act of chesed. This was the fault, that needed to be rectified by Noach. After a year in the ark, Noach had trained himself in chesed, and Hashem remembered how he had been feeding the animals, and He stopped the rain, writes the Ozharov Rebbe in Be’er Moshe. Noach had learned to think of others and consider their needs. This training of chesed was a rehabilitative process for Noach’s lack of prayer.
Rabbi Levenstein in Matok Haor presents an interesting perspective on why it was a lion that hurt Noach. The Gemarrah states that five things were said to be at the altar in the Beit Hamikdosh. It seems that with the First Beit Hamikdosh, there was a crouching lion, but in the Second Beit Hamikdosh there was a dog. What’s the difference between the two? A lion can protect its house and its master, for no thieves will approach. A dog, however, can only arouse its master to the danger. Similarly, Noach admonished his generation when the opportunity presented itself, but he did not actively provide protection through praying for them. For this reason, the lion attacked Noach, to remind him of this lapse. Then, in the ark, Noach prayed. When Hashem remembers Noach, writes Halekach Vehalebuv, it is because Noach had learned to daven.
While none of us may be on the level of performing chesed like Avraham Avinu writes Rabbi Lopian, we all have the ability to pray. If we look at our liturgy, at the Amidah prayer, we will note that all the requests and prayers are in the plural, bless us in the coming year, heal us, forgive us. We can all do chesed in the world through prayer. Take the opportunity to pray for others. Otherwise we are no better than Noach who was bitten by the lion to remind him of his responsibility to care for others. Take the initiative, even in the comfort of your own home, to think of the pain or discomfort of others. Turn into the lion crouching at the altar to protect each other with our prayers.