The Duty to Perform the Commandments Unselfishly
“One must study Torah even in a selfish way, for in so doing one will arrive at studying it in an unselfish way” (Pesachim 50b). The principle goal is to study Torah for its own sake and to obey the commandments as much as possible, to the point that in the morning blessings that precede the daily study of Torah, we ask that we “know Your Name and study Your Torah for its own sake” (Alfassi, Berachot 11b).
The Sages say, “Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, asked Shem the son of Noah, ‘How were you saved from the flood?’ And Shem answered him, ‘It was by the merit of taking care of and feeding the animals that were in the Ark. We were always running around day and night taking care of their needs, for there are some animals that eat during the day and sleep during the night, and there are others that eat at night and sleep in the day. It even happened that a lion struck and bit my father Noah because he was late in bringing him his meal’” (see Bereshith Rabba 30:6).
Some questions may be asked concerning this.
1. The Meyil Tzedeka asks how it is possible to say that they were saved for having taken care of the animals. The Torah explicitly testifies that G-d told Noah, “It is you that I have seen to be righteous before Me in this generation” (Genesis 7:1), meaning that they were saved because they were upright men. Why, therefore, did Eliezer ask by what merit they were saved? Did he not know that they were upright men?
2. Shem’s reply must be analyzed. Was it really for having taken care of the animals that they were saved? How could this be, since in order to have meat to eat after the flood, they fed the animals for their own benefit? What kind of service did they render to the animals in that case? If the verse says that they were saved by reason of their piety, why didn’t Shem reply in this way to Eliezer? Why did he tell him that it was for taking care of the animals?
Noah and his sons feared that they would become arrogant and consider themselves righteous, an unforgivable sin (Berachot 4a) for which they would be punished. This also explains why Noah did not enter the Ark until the waters rose on the earth and G-d pushed him in (Bereshith Rabba 32:5). He did not think that he merited to live while others perished. Noah and his sons avoided believing that it was due to their own merit that they were saved.
This explains the care with which they maintained the animals. Noah and his sons did not think of taking care of the animals so that they could have something to eat after the flood. They guarded themselves against such a thought, attributing their survival on the care they gave to the animals, doing so in order that no one could say that their efforts were performed out of selfishness. They obeyed G-d’s command only, which effectively directed them to make provisions for the animals, as it is written, “And as for you, take yourself of every food that is eaten and gather it in to yourself, that it shall be as food for you and for them” (Genesis 6:21). This consisted of all types of food in order to provide for the needs of every animal (Tanhuma 58:2). They fulfilled their duty by occupying themselves with providing the animals with as much care as possible, and in the final analysis it was this that saved them from the flood. The lion is proof that they acted in conformity to G-d’s command, for the meat of a lion is not edible, yet Noah continued to nourish the lions even after having been bitten by one. This proves that they acted in an unselfish manner.
We may yet add another reason. At the time, the attribute of Divine Justice hovered over the world, and the Accuser said, “the work of His hands is being drowned” (Megillah 10b). This is why, in order that the Accuser not plead that there was no reason for G-d to save them while the entire world was being destroyed, they were busy performing good deeds, deeds “which save from death” (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Zutah 1). As it is written, “charity [tzeddakah] rescues from death” (Proverbs 10:2), and they annulled their will before the Divine will. This was because the Accuser was pointing his finger at them and demanding justice: “Why did they not reprimand their fellows? Why should they live while others die?”
The answer to this is that they held the interest of the animals – thanks to whom they were saved – as their top priority, and they forsook their own comfort in order to fulfill the task that G-d had entrusted them with. They occupied themselves with taking care of the animals, both clean and unclean, with equal devotion, and it was because of this that they were saved from the flood.
This is the question that Abraham’s servant Eliezer had asked Shem, namely: “What merit managed to save you from the flood? G-d’s creations perished, and you didn’t reprimand your neighbors as required to lead them to repentance and be saved. And if you think that you were saved because of being upright, this is because your pride leads you in error! Perhaps you took care of the animals in order to gladly partake of their meat after the flood? Perhaps you only acted out of self-interest!” (See Sanhedrin 108b).
To this, Shem the son of Noah replied that they had no thoughts whatsoever of this type and no intention of personally profiting from the meat of the animals. The attribute of strict Justice did not have any grievance against them either, for everything that they did for the animals was done in a strictly unselfish way. The proof for this is that they continued to feed the animals even after “a lion struck and bit my father Noah.”
From this we learn a lesson that is valid for everyone. When one obeys G-d’s will, it is proper to so without ulterior motives, as it is said, “Fulfill His will as you would your own will” (Perkei Avoth 2:4). Do it solely because G-d commands it. If G-d testifies that a man is upright, he should not feel proud of himself, for “Every haughty heart is an abomination to the L-RD” (Proverbs 16:5) and “G-d cannot live in the same world as the conceited” (Sotah 5a). One must submit oneself to G-d with humility and feel that one is not worthy of being called upright. If not, then to make us lose any merit that we have acquired, the evil inclination will chime in our ear: “How righteous you are!”
It is written, “Noah did according to everything G-d commanded him” (Genesis 6:22), which “consisted of the construction of the Ark” (Bereshith Rabba 31:14). Furthermore it is stated, “And Noah did according to everything that the L-RD had commanded him” (Genesis 7:5), which consisted of his entry into the Ark (Rashi ad loc). Even if he did not merit being saved by his virtues, he merited it for his good care of the animals in the Ark. He built the Ark, and in the final analysis he entered into it as G-d had commanded him, doing so without pride, and only to obey G-d to the letter.