Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

“Ouch!” Parashat Noach 5782

Man has become so imbued with evil that G-d can no longer justify his existence. He decides to destroy every last human by means of a flood, designating one man, Noach, and his family as sole survivors. Along with representatives of each species of fauna, they sequester in an ark, where they are protected from the deluge. The Torah requires three entire verses to describe the destruction of mankind [Bereishit 7:21-23] “All flesh that stirred on earth perished – birds, cattle, beasts, and all the things that swarmed upon the earth, and all mankind. All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died. All existence on earth was blotted out—man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noach was left, and those with him in the ark.”

Precisely who were “those with him in the ark”? One might assume that the Torah is referring to Noach’s wife, his three sons and their wives, whose presence in the ark is explicitly mentioned by the Torah. Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, has other ideas. Noting that the Torah adds an extra word, specifying that “Only (Ach) Noach” survived the flood, Rashi proposes not one but three potential explanations: “‘Ach Noach’ means ‘Noach only.’ This is its real meaning. But the Midrashic explanation is that [Noach] was coughing and spitting blood because of the trouble he had with the cattle and beasts; others say, that [Noach] was once late in bringing food to a lion, so it struck him.” Rashi’s first explanation is obvious. According to his second explanation, Noach spent so much time and energy tending to the animals that all that remained of him was a shell. In his third explanation, the word “ach” is not translated as literally as “only”, but, rather, it is a phonetic “ouch!” or some similar sound emitted by a person who has just been bitten by a lion. Those with more than a cursory acquaintance with Rashi should have their curiosity piqued. To begin with, Rashi rarely offers two explanations and will only do so if neither of the explanations is bulletproof. Rashi proposing three explanations is truly extraordinary. Further, why is Rashi’s first answer – “the real meaning” – insufficient? Noach and his family were well and truly the last living specimens of Homo Erectus. Only they remained. What more is there to say? Finally, Rashi states in another location [Bereishit 3:8] that he is “only concerned with the plain sense of Scripture”. The fact that two of the three explanations that he proposes here are rooted in stories (midrashim) about angry lions and hungry cattle should raise some eyebrows.

We can gain some insight into Rashi’s triple-explanation with the help of the commentary of Rabbi Binyamin Sofer, known as the “Ktav Sofer”. The Ktav Sofer, who lived in the nineteenth century in Pressburg (modern day Bratislava), Hungary, succeeded his father, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known as the “Hatam Sofer”, as the Headmaster of the prestigious Pressburg Yeshiva. The Ktav Sofer begins his explanation by noting the similarities and differences between Noach and our forefather, Abraham. Scripture teaches that G-d “found” both men. Regarding Abraham, we are told [Nehemiah 9:8] “Finding [Abraham’s] heart true to You, You made a covenant with him”. Regarding Noach, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 6:8] “Noach found favour with G-d”. Our Sages in the Midrash differentiate between the two verses, noting that while G-d found Abraham, it was Noach who found G-d. The Ktav Sofer explains: An object is considered “found” if it turns up in an unexpected location. Abraham grew up spending every waking minute among idolaters. One would have expected Abraham to have become an idolater as well. His ability to buck the trend and to actively call out in the belief of one true G-d, often at the risk of his life, was unexpected[1]. Noach was a different story. Noach also lived among the evil. The mere fact that he was spared from their demise seems to indicate that he, too, unexpectedly bucked the trend. And yet, our Sages are not in agreement as to the extent of Noach’s saintliness. The Torah tells us [Bereishit 7:9] “Noach was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age”. Some of the commentators believe that Noach’s ability to remain righteous even “in his age”, even in an environment of sin in which he lived, was proof that in a more spiritual environment, he would have been even more saintly. Others, including the Ktav Sofer, assert that Noach could only be considered righteous “in his age” – only when compared to the rest of his generation. While the rest of them went to McDonalds to eat cheeseburgers, Noach left out the cheese. Maybe he even kissed the mezuzah on the way out. But were he to have lived in a more spiritually honed generation, he would not have stood out. He would have been lost in the shuffle.

The Ktav Sofer continues: After the rest of mankind has been wiped out, all that remains is “only Noach”. Not “Noach the Righteous” and not “Noach the blameless” – just plain old Noach. When Noach exits the ark, he plants a vineyard, drinks himself to a blind stupor, and parades around buck naked. One can only imagine G-d slapping Himself on His Divine Forehead and saying “For this I saved mankind?” What saved Noach, what justified his existence, teaches the Ktav Sofer, were the animals. King David writes in Psalms [36:7] “G-d rescues man and beast”. Our Sages in the Midrash reinterpret this to teach that G-d rescues man because of beast. Noach spent months on the ark tending to the animals. He gave them food and drink, he gave them heat in the winter and air in the summer, and he cleaned up their mess. While he might have been late or even lazy a few times, as a lion bite will attest, he gave them everything he had. After all of mankind had perished, after “only Noach” remained, what saved his life were the animals – “those with him in the ark”.

While the explanation of the Ktav Sofer addresses all of the difficulties we noted regarding Rashi’s explanation[2],  I would like to spin his explanation in a slightly different direction. Rabbi Schneur Zalman, who lived in Liadi, Belarus, in the second half of the eighteenth century, spends the first part of his magnum opus, the Tanya, dissecting the human soul. The cornerstone of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s thesis is that a human being actually contains two souls. One of these souls is called the animal soul. As described by Rabbi Yitzchak Mindel[3], “It is the vital principle that animates the physical body… It is the source of the bodily instincts and appetites… [It] possesses certain essential qualities, such as intellectual and emotional attributes, which are not to be found in the lower animal species, and which make the ‘animal soul’ in man distinctly ‘human’. These would include self-esteem, pride, modesty, ambition, and many other dispositions, both good and bad, which are ‘natural’ to most men, and which come under what is commonly called ‘human nature.’” Man’s second soul is called the Divine soul.

Rabbi Mindel writes, “It is completely independent of the body… The Divine origin of this soul provides the extra-mundane dimension which enables the soul, while residing in the body and animal soul, to rise above them and act in defiance of the natural dispositions of the individual.” Man’s mission, teaches Rabbi Schneur Zalman, is to subjugate his animal soul to his Divine soul. Returning to Noach, after mankind had been eradicated in the flood, “only Noach” survived. With no one left against whom to measure himself, he was given a new mission: to tame his own animal soul. Tending the animal soul, like tending animals, is no trivial task. It requires grit. To paraphrase Rashi, it requires “coughing and spitting blood”. Sometimes the animal soul gets the better of us. Sometimes the lion bites. When Noach becomes drunk after leaving the ark, it is his animal soul with its hands on the wheel. And yet, animal soul and all, Noach is still chosen to become the second Adam. G-d did not choose Noach because he was a saint – G-d chose Noach because he was Noach. Not because of who he was, but because of who he could become.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] The Ktav Sofer writes that G-d “found” Abraham but He did not “find” Sarah. As she lived with Abraham, her monotheistic beliefs were not surprising.

[2] Note that the Ktav Sofer does not intentionally answer the questions we raised. His explanation just happens to fit quite nicely into the hole that we dug.


About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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