Rashi, in his commentary to Parashat Noach (7:23), famously cites the Midrash’s account (in the Midrash Tanchuma) of Noach being bitten by the lion on the ark during the flood. Noach bore the responsibility of feeding all the animals with him on the ark, and on one occasion, he was late feeding the lion, and so the lion bit him.
The Midrash, as Rashi cites, seems to direct some criticism at Noach, applying to this incident the verse in Mishlei (11:31), “Behold, the righteous is repaid [for his wrongdoing] on the earth” – implying that the bite Noach suffered served as a punishment for his negligence. It appears that the Midrash found fault in Noach for arriving late on one occasion to feed the lion – despite Noach having to bear the near impossible task of feeding all the animals for the many months spent on the ark.
What might be the message conveyed by the Midrash’s description, and its criticism of Noach?
One answer that has been suggested is that feeding the lion was to be self-evidently Noach’s highest priority. As the strongest and fiercest animal, the lion should have been fed first, before the other animals. And thus the depiction of Noach delaying the feeding of the lion – presumably because that day he tended first to his other responsibilities – might perhaps represent the mistake of misplaced priorities, of neglecting the most important responsibilities in favor of less vital obligations. Often, we delay or entirely ignore our most important duties with the excuse that we are “busy,” preoccupied with other worthwhile pursuits. The Midrash’s depiction of Noach perhaps reminds us that we can be neglectful and irresponsible even if we are very busy, and even if we are very busy tending to important matters. We, like Noach, have many “animals” to tend to, numerous different important responsibilities that demand our attention. However, we must ensure to prioritize our time and energies properly, and ensure to first “feed” the “lion” – give precedence to our most vital responsibilities in life. We must follow Noach’s example of diligence and dedication, working devotedly and responsibly to satisfactorily meet the many different obligations assigned to us in our lives. But Noach’s lone mistake teaches us of the importance of prioritization, of ensuring that the plethora of such obligations does not distract us from the most central and vital responsibilities that we bear and which must be given precedence.