The beginning of this week’s Torah portion opens with great praise of Noach, a man of sterling character whose praiseworthy description of righteousness is unique from among all other biblical personalities. The verses state, “These are the generations of Noah, Noah was a righteous man he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9) This picture of righteousness and obedience to the word of God is supported in all of Noach’s actions leading up to the Flood. “And Noah did; according to all that God had commanded him, so he did.” (Genesis 6:22) Once again, in a later passage, we find the verse, “And Noah did, according to all that the Lord had commanded him.” (Genesis 7:5) Noach, a man of fine and righteous character who “walked with God,” served Him with devotion and clung to His commandments.
Yet, even with this, Noach is a perplexing character. Upon deeper reflection, a number of puzzling questions come to light. Firstly, how can we reconcile that such a righteous person could remain silent while the entire world was condemned to destruction? How could he not expend every effort and not do his utmost to implore to God that He overturn the decision, similar to Abraham who argued with God to save the wicked city of Sodom? Was he so apathetic to the plight of others, or was he too self-absorbed to notice? How can we understand that the man who was “perfect in his generations…Noah walked with God” was the very same who silently and obediently watched the world he knew disappear?
It is clear that the personality of Noach is a deeply intricate one, and perhaps a glimpse into his character can provide a powerful lesson for our times. In Chapter Seven, when the Flood rains begin to fall and the waters start to rise, the verse states, “And Noah went in and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him into the ark because of the flood waters.” (Genesis 7:7) Here the Sages question why the Torah felt compelled to inform us that Noach went into the Ark because of the waters of the Flood – after all, why else would he go in? The answer is a startling Midrash, one that clashes with the picture of the Noach who “walked with God.” The Midrash writes, “Noah, too, was of those who had little faith, believing and not believing that the Flood would come, and he did not enter the ark until the waters forced him to do so.” (Gen. Rabbah 32:6) Noach, who dedicated 120 years of his life building the Ark for the impending Flood and following all of God’s commandments down to the letter, could be counted “of those who had little faith”?
According to Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, a renowned leader in the early days of the Hassidic movement (d.1809) and author of Kedushat Levi, all of the questions we have asked above share the same common answer. The truth is that Noach did not have a change of heart when the Flood waters began to rise, but rather even from the very beginning Noach was a man of little faith – not of faith in God, but of faith in himself. The Kedushat Levi explains that this above Midrash is not at all suggesting that Noach lacked faith in God; he never doubted nor did he question the ability of God to fulfill His decree for a destructive Flood that would destroy humankind. Rather, when the Midrash states that Noach was of little faith it is referring to the fact that Noach lacked faith in himself and that he did not fully believe that he was a man worthy of being saved.
This explanation also sheds light as to why at no point during the 120 years that he spent building the Ark did Noach protest the impending destruction of the world. It was not apathy for others, nor was it indifference – rather it was a lack of confidence in himself and his abilities to do anything about it. Instead, during the years of building, Noach spent his time following God’s exact instructions regarding how to build the Ark. “And Noah did; according to all that God had commanded him, so he did.” (Genesis 6:22)And the verse “And Noah did, according to all that the Lord had commanded him.” (Genesis 7:5). Whatever Noach did was in reaction to a direct commandment, there was no spontaneous or creative drive for his obedience. It is this very lack of self-confidence that allowed him to stand by and not protest as the world was destroyed. After all, it takes a lot of confidence – and perhaps a healthy dose of chutzpah — to argue with God. And Noach, a man of little faith in himself, was simply too timid to take on such a brazen task.
Self-belief is a fundamental tenet of Judaism. According to Jewish tradition, the Modeh Ani prayer is recited at the start of each morning and it reads as follows: “I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.” Incredible. God returns our souls each morning because He has faith in us. Just like man lives his life believing in God, so too God believes in man. And if God believes in us, then we must not treat ourselves or our capabilities lightly. It is incumbent on each person to realize their unique value and believe in their ability to contribute to the world. This was Noach’s mistake. Noach believed in God with a full heart and lived his life in accordance with the divine will. But that is not enough; the lesson of Noach is that we must also believe in ourselves and our ability to make a difference.