The Midrash recounts that Avraham met Shem and asked him in what zechus his family merited leaving the ark. Shem responded that it was in the merit of their care of the animals. Avraham thought to himself, “If this is the merit one can accrue by caring for animals, kal v’chomer caring for people!” Inspired by this encounter, Avraham opened his “eishel” and devoted himself to chessed.
Why did Avraham think that Noach and family needed a special zechus to exit the ark? And the Midrash means just that – exiting, not being saved -- because the zechus of feeding the animals is something that Noach accrued only once safely aboard, not beforehand. It would seem to be a given that once the rain stopped and the land was dry Noach could exit. It’s something that should be m’meila, not a privilege that has to be earned.
Rav Chaim Ya’akov Goldvict z”l, the R”Y of Kerem B’Yavneh, explained that when the Midrash speaks of leaving the ark, it doesn’t just mean the physical act of stepping outside the door onto dry land. What the Midrash is referring to is the process of rebuilding the world. Avraham wanted to know how Noach and his family went from living for months in isolation to building a flourishing society. The answer, in a word, is chessed. The 12 months spent on the teivah was an intensive crash course in caring for others. Without a commitment to chessed, you can be walking on the same dry land as everyone else, but still be locked inside a teivah.
My wife noticed that when chaplains from the u’mos ha’olam come to visit patients in the hospital, they always ask whether the patient would like them to pray with them (we still haven’t figured this out – can’t the person pray by themselves?) When a Rabbi sees a Jewish family in the hospital, the first question they ask is, “Do you need food?” Avraham made an eishel – achila, shtiya, levi’ya. (Yes, there is another interpretation of what eishel means, but it seems to me that the practice of Klal Yisrael as well as the lashon of the Midrash above is more in concert with this idea.) It's not that they emphasize the relationship with G-d more than we do -- it's that we recognize that a relationship with G-d is built around a foundation of chessed.