It is hard to know which was more difficult for Noah: to build the ark when there was no sign of rain, or to be in the ark with the animals for an entire year. As rabbinic tradition has it, during those 12 months Noah was so busy tending to the needs of all those animals that he had no time to sleep. The ark represents much more than an escape vessel. It is a laboratory of sorts, a messy, exhausting and illuminating experiment in which Noah learns the lessons of care and compassion, attention and responsibility.
Can you imagine the labor and foresight involved in providing and serving a menu for such an assortment of mute guests for an entire year? No wonder, then, that the midrash Tanhuma refers to the Righteous One as one who knows the needs of others, even the needs of animals. Noah emerged from the ark, say the rabbis, as a sustainer of life because the ark served as the crucible within which the wisdom of sympathy and nurture could develop.