“… only Noach survived, and those with him in the Ark” (Bereishis 7:23).
Rashi cites a Medrash that Noach delayed feeding the lion, and it bit him.
The commentaries ask why the lion was not afraid to bite Noach. After all, the animals depended on Noach for their subsistence, and Noach could retaliate by depriving the lion of food. Moreover, all the animals were aware of the selfless dedication of Noach and his children to the well-being of the animals. Could not the lion wait another few minutes until Noach brought his food?
The Talmud in Sanhedrin (59b) relates that R’ Shimon bar Chalafta was once traveling and saw two roaring lions quickly approaching him. He called out to Hashem, “The young lions roar after their prey and seek their food from Hashem.” Two pieces of meat immediately fell from Heaven. The lions ate one piece and left the other one. They explained that since he had been concerned for their welfare, they likewise cared for his. R’ Shimon took the meat to the bais medrash to inquire whether it was kosher. The Sages verified that no non-kosher item descends from heaven, and the meat was permissible for human consumption.
Ostensibly, the lion has the intelligence to appreciate a good turn on his behalf, like those who interacted with R’ Shimon bar Chalafta. However, the lion in the ark, who experienced Noach’s devotion on his behalf day in and day out, felt that Noach deserved to be bitten because he was merely a few minutes late this one time in bringing his food. Because of this, Noach was invalidated from bringing a korban when they left the ark, and it was his son Shem who brought the sacrifice.
R’ Simcha Zissel of Kelm states that, in truth, the lion did not want to hurt Noach. He was cognizant of Noach’s altruistic commitment to all the creatures living in the ark and was mindful of the fact that Noach could strike back and deprive him of his food. However, the lion was commissioned by Hashem to reinforce Noach’s uninterrupted service to the animals. Our Sages explain that the catastrophic flood was brought upon the world because it was suffused with violence and corruption. But the breaking point was the thievery in which the people engaged. The rectification for that sin is chesed – acts of kindness. Saving Noach and his family was a chesed of Hashem. Noach needed to continue to adhere to the chesed he was carrying out for the animals, and not to let up for even a moment, in order that he merit to remain alive.
We learn that when Noach’s son told Avraham Avinu of the selfless dedication of Noach to the animals – that during the 12 months they were on the ark, he never slept – Avraham asserted that Noach had done chesed with animals, and he would do chesed with humans. Knowing that Noach had been hurt because he was slow in bringing the lion’s food, Avraham Avinu was careful not to defer his chesed needlessly. On the third day after his bris milah, at the age of 99, he sat in the doorway of his tent when the sun was at its full strength, looking to do chesed. Hashem then paid us for all his chesed when we were in the midbar.
As the Alter of Kelm, the great R’ Simcha Zissel, slept he dreamt that Rabbeinu Yonah, the author of the Shaarei Teshuvah, had come to give a lecture in the Yeshiva of Kelm. R’ Simcha Zissel shook in awe seeing this early commentator, whose face shone like the Divine Presence.
He watched as Rabbeinu Yonah approached the door and then came to a complete standstill. When Rabbeinu Yonah made no effort to enter the building, the Alter realized that he would need an extraordinary merit to be worthy of welcoming Rabbeinu Yonah into the yeshiva.
The Alter began to laud the notable particulars of the yeshiva – the wide dissemination of Torah knowledge, the diligence of the outstanding students and their selfless dedication to Torah study, the learning of mussar (ethics), the magnanimity of the yeshiva’s supporters, the eminent members of their Kollel. Rabbeinu Yonah remained unmoved.
In desperation, the Alter then began to name the individual students in the hope that one of them had an exceptional merit that would impress Rabbeinu Yonah. When the Alter mentioned the name of Velvel, his son, Rabbeinu Yonah’s face lit up immediately and he entered the yeshiva.
With that, the Alter awoke from his dream. He discerned that there was more to this dream than met the eye, and he immediately called for his son. “Please tell me what special mitzvah you performed yesterday,” he said. Velvel was reluctant to answer and seemed embarrassed. However, upon his father’s command, he related that he had been saving for many months to buy himself a strong pair of shoes, as those he had were quite worn.
A day earlier he was cheerfully walking home without a care for the freezing snow underfoot, as his feet were well shod in the new pair of shoes. On the way, though, he encountered an unfortunate destitute man trudging from door to door, collecting tzedakah. The man was in great pain as he walked, and Velvel noticed that his shoes were completely torn, with his bare toes turning blue from the cold. “I could not bear to see his pain,” cried Velvel, “so I took off my new shoes and gave them to him.”
It is impossible to assess how valuable an act of chesed is in Heaven.