Mr. October

I had barely a passing interest in the World Series this year. That was not because I am indifferent to baseball but – primarily – because of the poor showing of my beloved Yankees. To recap: despite having the best players (for the most money) and despite having (tied for) the best regular season record, the Yankees were soundly defeated in the opening round of the playoffs.

Forced to confront another winter sans trophy, I was thinking about the main cause of the Yankees’ unceremonious exit which, actually, transcends sports and relates to almost every area of life – including the religious.

Perhaps more than any other sport, baseball venerates those who perform at their best when the pressure is greatest and the stakes highest. Many players have made their reputation in October with postseason success, but perhaps none more dramatically than the Yankees (and the A’s – I must admit) Reggie Jackson. In fact, his heroics on the game’s most dramatic stage famously earned him the enduring nickname “Mr. October.” When the proverbial lights got brightest, Jackson’s eyes seemed to get wider, as he used the charged atmosphere to fuel his determination and success. Most players, however, blink when the lights get too bright, as the weight of expectations are simply too much for them to bear. (Full disclosure: when I was an adolescent, I wore my Yankee hat so regularly to summer camp that I earned the enduring nickname “Reggie.” I was very proud of winning the award for “Best Nickname” at the end of the summer.)

This issue of performance under pressure has all but consumed fans and media alike this Fall, as they focus on the well-chronicled failures of Yankee star Alex Rodriguez. Despite his overwhelming talent, A-Rod is fast becoming the “anti-Reggie” after another ignominious October.

So, I was wondering: why do some players rise to the challenge while others shrink from it?

Perhaps the secret lies in – of all places – a penetrating insight of the great Chassidic master, R. Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev.

There is an astonishing Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 32 #6; cited by Rashi, Bereishis 7:7) which suggests – at first blush – that despite the fact that Noach spent 120 years building the ark, nevertheless, when the rain actually started to fall he didn’t completely believe that God would cause the flood and therefore didn’t immediately enter the ark. It was only when the water rose to his neck that Noach was essentially forced into the ark.

In other words, when the lights got bright – when called on to take decisive action – Noach blinked.

Could it be? Is it conceivable that he lacked emunah, basic faith, in God and His promise?

R.Levi Yitzchok suggests that what the Midrash is really conveying is that Noach lacked faith, not in God, but in himself.

He explains that what started out as merely misplaced modesty – and thus, the reason why Noach never argued with God over His decreed destruction; after all, it takes a certain level of self-confidence to question God’s judgment – “snowballed” over the years into almost paralyzing self-doubt. By the time the rain actually came Noach had reached the point, apparently, where he no longer believed in his own worthiness to be saved.

This insight – whether a correct understanding of the Midrash or not – is undoubtedly an accurate understanding of human psychology. The line between modesty and self-doubt is often so faint as to be nearly impossible to identify. And self-doubt tends to be exacerbated by pressurized situations and, in extreme cases, can even be paralyzing. To pass life’s most demanding tests one must possess a supreme level of self-confidence. Rarely – if ever – are people who lack self-confidence successful. Whether on the baseball field, in the board room, or in the Beis Midrash, to achieve greatness one must first believe in their own capacity for greatness.

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

Perhaps R.Levi Yitzchok is correct and this is what happened to Noach. And – le’havdil – perhaps this is also what happened to Alex Rodriguez. I wonder.

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6 Responses

  1. AlanLaz says:

    Interestingly, the Be’er Moshe calls Noach’s modesty an “Anava Pesulah.”

  2. Bob Miller says:

    This post is more of the “frum bad press” Noach gets, perennially. Sermon after sermon, blog after blog—Enough already! We get the idea!

    The first opinion in Rashi keeps getting pushed aside. Noach was not Avraham (who but Avraham was?), but was definitely a Tzaddik, as HaShem attests.

    We don’t need analogies from Avoda Zara (Yankee worship).

  3. MP says:

    In response to Bob Miller:
    Noach *was* a tzaddiq. The question may be whether he had the capacity to encounter/deal with (if not confront) the world around him but chose to instead shrink from that world. One thought to take from “Reggie” Gottlieb’s article is that (as AlanLaz noted and as I believe Rabbi Dr. Twerski emphasizes) a lack of confidence in dealing with the world around us and the situations we find ourselves in is a form of false (and self-defeating) modesty.

  4. Joel Rich says:

    BTW note the language of Rashi on the 1st line of parshat noach, the 1st opinion (positive) is introduced by “yesh miraboteinu dorshim” while the 2nd opinion is introduced by “vyesh shedorshim” perhaps implying that the wise try to look at the positive?

  5. Dovid Gottlieb says:

    MP’s point is, I believe correct.

    Even the more favorable opinion in Chazal must address the fact that Noach didn’t fight for the survival of the world. In fact, R. Levi Yitzchok is actually providing a defense (of sorts) of Noach. The more typical understanding is that he didn’t care as much as Avraham. But R. Levi Yitzchok explains that it wasn’t that at all; rather he didn’t see himself as capable or worthy of arguing with Hashem (when in fact he may have been).

    I thank AlanLaz for his source reference and would add that there is a similar discussion about the famous Gemara in Gittin that ascribes the churban to “anvisanuso shel R.Zachariah ben Avkulos.” See, for example, the comments of the Maharatz Chiyus there.

    And finally, see the Meshech Chochmah and Beis Yisroel (of Gur) who both discuss the positive and admirable aspects of Noach’s humility.

  6. Mariner Fan says:

    A-Rod’s biggest mistake was leaving Seattle for the bright lights of New York. In Seattle, he would have remained a Tzadik “Be’Dorosav” and may have had a Parsha named for him. Moving to NYC was like moving to the generation of Avraham.

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