Noach did not have an easy time – at all – during the months he spent inside the ark.
We know this because we have a firsthand account of what life was like for him and his family at that time.
The Torah tells that after Avraham Avinu waged his successful battle against the four kings, he made his way back and was met by a figure named Malkitzedek (Beresheet 14:18), whom the rabbis identify as Shem, one of Noach’s sons. Avraham asked Shem about the time he spent in the ark – specifically, he inquired as to the merit in which Noach and his family were spared and allowed to exit the ark safely. Shem explained that they were allowed to leave the ark in the merit of the great mitzvah of tzedakah. Of course, there were no poor people in the ark for them to support, but they had the responsibility of feeding all the animals. Shem told Avraham that Noach’s family did not sleep at all the entire time they spent on the ark, as they were constantly tending to the animals. And, on one occasion, Noach was late feeding the lion, and he was bitten. In this merit, they were saved.
Indeed, a different passage in the Midrash tells that Noach cried out to Gd in the ark, “Hotzi’a mimasger nafshi – Remove my soul from confinement!” (Tehillim 142:8). Noach and his family lived in the ark in a state of “confinement.” It was a prison – and far worse, as they were trapped inside this structure together with the animals, for whom they were responsible to care.
We must wonder, then, why did Gd choose to rescue Noach and his family in this fashion? Gd, of course, had an unlimited number of ways in which He could have saved Noach. Not that Gd needs our suggestions – but, for example, He could have instructed Noach and his family to journey to the Land of Israel, where, according to tradition, the floodwaters never came. Why did He force Noach to live in an ark with all the animals?
The Punishment for Insularity
A number of commentators explain that Noach, as righteous as he was, remaining moral, ethical and Gd-fearing during a time of rampant crime, violence and decadence, had one significant shortcoming. Namely, he did not go out to the people to try motivating them to change. Unlike his descendant, Avraham, who actively worked to teach his contemporaries about monotheism, Noach basically stayed at home. He did not make an effort to educate the people of his time and inspire them to change.
Thus, Rav Moshe Alshich (Safed, 1508-1593) writes, Noach was punished “middah kenegged middah – measure for measure.” Since he lived privately, in the confines of his home, without going out to try to uplift the people, he was forced to live in the confines of the ark. As he had preferred the comfort of his home over the challenge of going out to teach the people, he was required to endure the discomfort of the ark. He lived an insular life before the flood, and so he survived the flood specifically through the insularity of the ark, with the all the hardships and suffering that this entailed.
This explains Shem’s response to Avraham Avinu, as mentioned earlier. Shem said that his family earned the right to exit the ark safely through the merit of their tzedakah, their feeding and caring for the animals. They were forced to endure the grueling experience of the ark because of their failure to reach out to the people of their time, to extend themselves, to help improve society – and they rectified their mistake through the kindness they dispensed on the ark, their selflessly caring for animals, sacrificing their own needs for those of others.
Learning From Noach’s Example
Returning to the Midrash’s account of Avraham’s conversation with Shem, the Midrash tells us that Avraham walked away from this meeting inspired.
He said to himself, “These people – if not for the fact that they performed kindness for animals, beasts and birds, they would not have left there… If I perform [kindness] for human beings, who are in the form and image of angels, then how much more so will I be saved from harm!” Avraham learned from Shem the unique importance – and power – and kindness and generosity. The kindness that Noach and his family extended to animals provided the merits they needed to be rescued from the flood that annihilated the rest of humanity. Certainly, Avraham reasoned, kindness extended to human beings, who are created in the image of Gd, who possess a sacred soul, who are qualitatively higher and more important than animals – must be infinitely times more powerful. The merits of charity and kindness are boundless, and provide protection from the many different dangers that surround us.
Remarkably, Avraham learned this lesson from Shem. We must assume that Avraham already understood the importance and value of hesed, but his appreciation of its greatness was considerably enhanced by his conversation with Shem. Even more remarkably, this encounter with Shem inspired Avraham to launch his famous hospitality initiative. The Midrash teaches that it was immediately after this meeting with Shem that Avraham planted his “eshel” (Beresheet 21:13) – referring to a free hotel, where he provided guests with achilah (food), shetiyah (drink), and leviyah (an escort for the road) – the first letters of which spell “eshel.” The example set by Noach and his family on the ark inspired Avraham to become the pillar of hesed that he is forever known to be. It was this precedent that showed Avraham the singular importance of kindness, motivating him to set up a hospitality center where he helped untold numbers of people, and taught them to believe in and pray to the one, true Gd.
Avraham’s legendary hesed, which forever represents the gold standard of loving kindness, marked the complete rectification of Noach’s mistake. Noach performed kindness for animals – and this kindness would, ten generations later, inspire Avraham to perform kindness for people. The process of rectification which began in the ark during the flood reached its completion many years later, through Avraham’s famous hesed project which was motivated by Noach’s example.
The Two Noachs
This Midrashic passage perhaps sheds light on the first verse of Parashat Noach, which seems to unnecessarily repeat Noach’s name. It says: “Eleh toledot Noach, Noach ish tzadik, tamim haya bedorotav – These are the offspring of Noach; Noach was a righteous man, he was blameless in his generations.” Why does the Torah twice mention Noach’s name – “These are the offspring of Noach, Noach”?
The answer might be that there were, in fact, two Noachs – the Noach that survived the flood, and the later Noach – our patriarch Avraham, who learned from Noach’s example. The description “ish tzadik” refers to the first Noach, the Noach of the flood, whom Gd later calls a tzadik (7:1), whereas the description “tamim” refers to Avraham, the second Noach, who is called “tamim” (Beresheet 17:1). This introductory verse speaks of Noach’s piety bedorotav – in his “generations,” referring to the first Noach, who lived during the flood, and the second Noach – Avraham – who lived in a later generation.
This explanation of the verse demonstrates the kind of impact that every individual can have through his or her actions. Noach and his family worked tirelessly caring for the animals on the ark, in private, away from public view – and yet, this set an example that was followed by Avraham ten generations later, and Avraham, of course, serves as the paragon of kindness that people learn from to this very day. Noach lived not only in his generation, but also in the generation of Avraham, because his actions profoundly impacted Avraham, inspiring him to offer hospitality to wayfarers. Even when people leave this world, they remain through the ripple effect that they set into motion, and which continues for countless generations into the future.
The mitzvot we perform are significant and valuable in their own right, but they also set an example for the people around us. The way we pray in the synagogue affects everyone in the room. When we speak to people courteously, others learn from our good manners. When we conduct our business affairs ethically, we help raise ethical standards in the marketplace, thereby impacting countless people. When we dispense kindness, we encourage others to do the same. When we are respectful on social media, we encourage other users to be similarly respectful. And every ounce of goodness we generate within somebody near to us causes that person to arouse goodness within others, setting into motion a ripple effect that extends far and wide, impacting the future of Am Yisrael and of the world at large.
Nowadays, unlike in the times of Noach, it is all but impossible to live in an “ark,” in seclusion and insularity. Nearly all of us are involved, on one level or another, with several institutions, organizations, businesses and other groups. We are constantly engaged with other people, both in real life and digitally. We must realize that every interaction we have causes a ripple effect and has an impact. The way we speak, what we speak about, the way we text and post, and the way we act has an influence on somebody, who will then influence somebody else, and so on. The story of Noach teaches us how much influence can be wielded even by kindness performed in the privacy of an “ark.” Certainly, then, when we engage with the world around us, we profoundly affect our environment, and even future generations.
Every word we speak, and every action we perform, leaves an imprint on the world. Let us try to ensure that our imprint is a positive one, that we influence the world through goodness, through kindness, through faith and mitzvah observance, thereby bringing humanity one very important step further along the road to its ultimate perfection.