By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
A priest and a pastor from the nearby parishes stood along the side of the roadway, holding up a sign that reads, “The end is near! Turn around before it’s too late!”
They resolved to hold up the sign to each passing car in an attempt to save the driver and the passengers from the terrible fate that awaited them. However, the road had been unusually quiet that morning and they found themselves with little to do. Finally, they heard the sound of an approaching vehicle. Straightening up, then edged closer to the road, raising the sign high in the air.
“The end is near!” they cried out as the car raced toward them.
“Get lost, you religious fanatics!” the driver shouted at them through his open window as the car sped past.
“But… the end is near!” they called after the disappearing vehicle.
A moment later, the car rounded the curve that the priest and pastor knew awaited it. They heard the squeal of brakes and the screeching of tires followed by a loud splash.
The pastor turned to the priest and asked, “Do you think we should have simply put up a sign that said – ‘Bridge Out’?”
“Noach was a righteous man in his generation.” So opens Parashat Noach and the epic narrative of the flood. “Noach,” according to the text, “walked with God.” To the casual reader, these words elevate Noach to a level of faith and holiness that cannot help but awe us. However, just as the ambiguity of the clergymen’s sign carried a different message than the one they’d intended, the truth of the story of Noach is likewise, very different than what it might first appear to be.
In fact, according to Rashi’s characterization of Noach, rather than a man of great faith, he is actually a man of very little faith. As the Midrash suggests, “…one of those with little faith. He believed yet he did not believe fully that the Flood would come.” Noach? A man of little faith? Did he not suffer the derision of his neighbors and peers as he built the Ark at God’s command? Did that not require great faith?
The Torah tells us that Noach entered the Ark, “mipnei mei ha’mabul“, because of the waters of the Flood. This, to our sages, was ample evidence that Noach did not truly believe in what was to come until the waters were starting to lap up over his very own feet. Until that moment, he wasn’t going anywhere…
Rav Kanievski, the Steipler Gaon, differentiates between two levels of faith/belief. There is the academic or intellectual faith so many of us possess – we study and reflect about truths and beliefs but these truths and beliefs do not touch our cores, they are not essential to us.
If Noach had been asked, “Is the flood coming?” he certainly would have answered, “Yes.” But his response would have been an intellectual response, not a fundamental, sensory one. He got the “concept”. He wasn’t getting the “reality”. Even when the rains began, Noach saw just rain, not the beginning of God’s great punishment. Not until the waters began to flood over his feet. And so, he is censured. He did not believe that God’s warning was real, and should motivate his reaction.
How different he would have behaved if he had been commanded by a mortal king! If a king declares a place off limits, punishable by death who would dare test the king’s resolve? L’havdil! How much more should be heed God than man? But Noach clearly did not. This is why, the Steipler explains, why we say that Noach was a maamin ve’ino maamin. He both believed and he did not. For if he truly believed, would he have waited for the waters to push him into the ark?
Prior to his passing, Rav Yochanan blessed his students (Berachos 28b), “May it be the will of Hashem that your fear of Heaven should equal your fear of mortals.”
Is that all we can expect? To fear Heaven as we do man? The Steipler explains that we understand that fear of heaven must surely exceed fear of mortals, that we know that man’s retribution is limited – his punishments can be escaped. But God’s outstretched Hand is limitless. His punishment not limited to this world but to the world to come as well.
R’ Yochanan’s disciples understood this, and accepted the blessing knowing that he was referring to that other level of belief, the sensory level. For what a person knows may or may not prevent him from sinning, but that which he feels will certainly protect him. Feeling, sensing, actually living the belief is usually limited to those situations one can see, or touch, or smell, even among those with intense yiras shomayim.
So R’ Yochanan blessed – would it only be that his students’ fear of Heaven would reach this level, then they would be truly blessed.