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What Does a Chameleon Eat?

October 24, 2020

The first two parshiyot in the Torah clearly and dramatically display Hashem’s omnipotent ability to create and destroy. Just last week we read about the creation of the world, Hashem’s fashioning something from nothing, and this week, in Parshat Noach, we read of its destruction. Yet, when Hashem decides to flood the world during the generation of Noach, He asks for a lot of help. He instructs Noach to build a boat, which according to the Midrash took many years, and to somehow bring with him multiple of every time of animal. Being that Hashem is capable of anything, why didn’t He just save Noach and the animals on His own? Or why didn’t He simply create the animals again after the flood the way that He had in Bereishit? The story of Noach corralling all the animals on to the boat and caring for them there is certainly a fun one, but what was its purpose, and what is its message?

R. Michael Yammer, the Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Shaalvim, proposed the following idea. The wickedness of Noach’s generation is summarized as, “ותשחת הארץ לפני האלקים ותמלא הארץ חמס, The earth had become corrupt before Hashem, and the earth had become filled with חמס. (Bereishit 6:11)” חמס, Rashi explains, means גזל, robbery. Meaning, the primary sin of this particular generation was their involvement with thievery. They were dishonest, selfish, insensitive, and greedy. Each person placed his own needs and desires far above concern for the needs or wellbeing of anyone else. And therefore, as the world was being destroyed, Noach had to be working on one thing: becoming a more giving person. In order to counteract the terrible selfishness that had pervaded the world, Noach needed to become an איש חסד, a man of kindness and generosity, as only then could the world properly be recreated from him.

But I think the message runs even deeper. What is true chesed, and what does it mean to be a person of chesed? The Gemara on Sanhedrin 108b recounts the fascinating conversation that took place between Shem, the son of Noach, and Eliezer, the servant of Avraham. Eliezer asked Shem what it was like living on the boat during the flood. Shem answered:

צער גדול היה לנו בתיבה בריה שדרכה להאכילה ביום האכלנוה ביום שדרכה להכילה בלילה האכלנוה בלילה האי זקיתא לא הוה ידע אבא מה אכלה יומא חד הוה יתיב וקא פאלי רמונא נפל תולעתא מינה אכלה מיכן ואילך הוה גביל לה חיזרא כי מתלע אכלה.

It was great suffering in the ark. a creature that one typically feeds during the day, we fed it during the day, and one that typically feeds at night, we fed it at night. The chameleon, my father did not know what it eats. One day, he was sitting and peeling a pomegranate. A worm fell from it and he (the chameleon) ate it. From that point forward he would knead bran [with water], and when it became overrun with worms, he (the chameleon) would eat it.

Caring for the animals was not a simple thing at all. Each animal had its own diet, each had its own eating schedule, and surely there were other complications as well. It’s likely there were other animals, not just the chameleon, who required some creativity to figure out what they even eat! But Noach’s task on the boat was singularly focused: care for the animals’ every need, even if takes some work to figure out what it is that they need. And Noach lived up to that responsibility.

There are many opportunities for chesed. We are all regularly solicited by wonderful organizations who need financial support, volunteers, or publicity. But to be a person of chesed is not just to do the chesed or give tzedakah when it comes before you. It requires the hard work of putting yourself in the shoes of another, really imagining and empathizing with their needs and struggles. It took Noah some time and effort to even figure out what the chameleon would eat! And once he figured it out, he labored to make sure that it was available for him every day. That is chesed. And that was Noach’s mission aboard the boat.

If the sins of thievery and greed destroyed the world, it seems to follow that chesed and generosity contribute to the sustaining and vitality of the world. Proactive chesed begins with deep thinking: who can I help, and how can I best help them? Shem told Eliezer that the time on the boat was not easy; it was indeed a lot of work. But from that work, from the true chesed, came the existence of the entire world in which we live.

Good Shabbos!

Rabbi Fox

Sat, April 10 2021 28 Nisan 5781