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.