The Psychology of Noach

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October 08 2010

After one hundred and twenty years of building and preparing, the time has finally come. The rain is falling, the flood waters are rising, and as a result, “Va’yavo Noach u’vanav ve’ishto, u-neshei vanav ito el ha-tevah mipnei mei ha-mabul” (Bereishis 7:7), Noach and his family enter the protective cover of the ark. 

At first glance this pasuk seems unremarkable, perhaps even superfluous – of course Noach entered the ark – and yet, Rashi cites an astonishing Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 32 #6) which sees great significance in the final words of the verse. According the Midrash, Noach only went into the ark “mipnei mei ha-mabul,” when he was finally forced (“mipnei”) into it by the waters of the flood. However, until that moment Noach had refused to enter the ark because, “mi’katnei emunah haya, ma’amin v’eno ma’amin she’yavo ha-mabul,” he lacked complete faith and didn’t really believe that there would be a flood. 

Many subsequent commentators have struggled to explain this shocking statement of the Midrash. After all, is it conceivable that Noach, who is described by the Torah as a “tzaddik tamim," lacked emunah in Hashem and His promise? Could it be that Noach spent all that time and extended all that effort to build an ark for a flood that he didn’t really believe would happen? 

R. Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (Kedushas Levi) offers a novel explanation and suggests that the Midrash is actually asserting that Noach lacked faith in himself. He was “mi’katnei emunah” not because he didn’t believe in God’s promise, but in the sense that he lacked self-confidence and didn’t fully believe in himself. R. Levi Yitzchok further suggests that this is the reason that Noach never challenged Hashem about the decree to destroy the world. Many sources are critical of Noach’s silence – especially in contrast with Avraham’s attempts to save Sedom – but R. Levi Yitzchok explains that this wasn’t because Noach was apathetic or self absorbed, but rather because he lacked the confidence to do anything about it. After all, it takes a lot of confidence – and perhaps some chutzpah as well – to argue with Hashem and Noach was simply too insecure about his worthiness to do something that audacious. 

Apparently what started out as self-doubt “snowballed” into almost paralyzing insecurity. By the time the flood waters began to rise Noach had reached the point where he was no longer sure whether he even deserved to be saved; Noach was “ma’amin v’eno ma’amin” about his own virtue.  

The Torah, of course, extols the virtue of modesty, but we must be aware that the line between modesty and self-doubt is often faint and easy to miss. And as evidenced by Noach, self-doubt can be exacerbated by pressurized situations and, over time, can even be paralyzing. To pass life’s most demanding tests one must possess a healthy degree of self-confidence. Rarely – if ever – are people who lack self-confidence successful. In all areas of life, whether in the board room or the Beis Midrash, to achieve greatness first one must be “mi’gedolei ha-emunah,” believing fully in their own capacity for greatness. 

Or, as Samuel Johnson articulated so matter-of-factly, “Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings.”


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