Parshat Noach opens with great praise of Noach, a man of sterling character whose praiseworthy description of righteousness is unique amongst all other Biblical personalities. The verses state: “These are the offspring of Noach — Noach was a righteous man. He was perfect in his generations. Noach walked with God.”( Bereishit 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, as it says: “Noach made; he did everything that God had commanded him.”( Ibid. 6:22.) And again, in a later passage, we find the verse, “Noach obeyed, according to all that God had commanded him” (Ibid. 7:5). Noach, a man of fine and righteous character who “walked with God,” served Him with devotion and clung to His commandments.
Even so, Noach is a most perplexing character. Upon deeper reflection, a number of puzzling questions come to light:
First, how can we explain how such a righteous person would remain silent while the entire world was condemned to destruction? How could he not expend every effort and not do his utmost to implore God to overturn the decision — similar to Abraham who argued with God to save the wicked city of Sodom?
Secondly, was Noach too self-absorbed to notice the challenges and issues that were confronting his generation? 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. A short while after describing him as “perfect in his generations,” when the flood rains begin to fall and the waters start to rise, the verse states, “Noach, his sons…went into the ark because of the flood waters.” ( Ibid. 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: “Noach, 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.”( Bereishit Rabbah 32:6) How could the same 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, be counted as one “of those who had little faith”!?
According to Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the author of Kedushat Levi and a renowned leader in the early days of the Hassidic movement, 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; he never doubted or questioned God’s ability 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 — that he did not fully believe that he was a man worthy of being saved. (Kedushat Levi, Noach, pg. 8.)
This explanation also sheds light as to why at no point during the 120 years Noach spent building the Ark did he protest the impending destruction of the world. It was not apathy for others or indifference — rather it was a lack of confidence in himself and his ability to do anything about it. Instead, as he built the Ark, Noach spent his time following God’s exact instructions: “and Noach did; according to all that God had commanded him, so he did.” ( Bereishit 6:22.) 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 idly 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.
Belief in oneself is a fundamental tenet of Judaism. According to Jewish tradition, the Modeh Ani prayer, recited at the start of each morning, reads as follows: “I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faith is great.” (Morning Prayers)
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 view ourselves or our capabilities lightly. It is incumbent upon each person to realize their unique value and believe in their ability to contribute to the society in which they live. 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 in the world.
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator. He serves as an Lieutenant in the IDF reserves as a battalion Rabbi, and is the author of the book “A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel.”