The story of Noach is marked by high and lows. Noach was introduced as a person who would bring rest and relief to “us” (Genesis 5:23). While the pronoun “us” is ambiguous, it is clear that he is meant to help others. In the lengthy episode of the flood and the construction of the ark, he heroically follows Hashem’s directions and saves his family and all of the animals of the world. He works tirelessly and faithfully to build the ark and to tend to the needs of these animals. According to the Midrash (Tehilim 37), he got minimal sleep because of the varied feeding schedules of the animals. Following the flood, Noach is charged to repopulate the earth. In this mission, however, he seems to fail. He does not have any more children, despite Hashem’s repeated directions and assurances. Instead, he gets drunk, and seems to accomplish nothing else.
How are we to understand this failure, and the heels of his previous successes? Why was he unable to complete his final mission, which seems to be a much easier and more optimistic one, even after his prior compliance with the painstaking tasks that he was charged with?
There is one glaring detail in this lengthy story: the silence of Noach. Noach never spoke. He acted and responded to Hashem’s many instructions, but never said anything. He acted for the sake of God, for other people, and for animals, but did little for himself, and never offered us a window into his own thoughts and emotions. It seems that the Torah is highlighting his silence in order to alert us to the isolation that Noach experienced. One can fully dedicate all of one’s energies for the benefit of others. However, a human must also tend to one’s own needs, especially the need to talk about one’s experiences and to lend expression to intense emotions. In the case of Noach, this omission might have led to his final failure. When Hashem gave his final instruction, the easiest and best mission of rebuild the world with a fresh start under a beautiful rainbow, Noach was already burned out, and was simply unable.
This insight into the human condition and to the experience of selflessness seems particularly pertinent today. In the wake of the most horrific atrocities that I have witnessed in my lifetime on October 7, I have seen many of the most humane, selfless and inspiring acts of giving. People across the world have put the needs of others first and have offered support and generosity in the most extraordinary ways. All people are affected in different ways, and those who were not directly affected might not think see ourselves as victims. However, everyone has their own experience and must not repeat the mistake of Noach. Everyone should pay attention to their own physical and emotional needs and should speak about them with others so that we can be maximally prepared to dedicate our energies to others in a healthy and productive way.