By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
Noach was a righteous man in his generation…
– Breishis 6:9
Only a short few years ago, a hurricane formed in the mid-Atlantic. The various weather services and weather broadcasters developed a number of scenarios, probabilities, as to where the hurricane would make landfall and how powerful it would be at that point. As the storm approached, the variables had coalesced to show an extremely high probability of a severe storm making landfall.
Evacuations were ordered.
Public services were halted.
As the sky darkened and the winds picked up, two young men walked out onto the deserted beach. Assessing the growing, angry waves and looking directly toward the storm, one turned to the other and said, “Looks like this could be the big one.”
The other nodded. “I think you’re right.”
In silent agreement, they returned to their cars, retrieved their surfboards and immediately headed back to the beach and the mighty waves.
Many of us would have viewed the actions of these young men as foolish, self-destructive even. Few of us would have ever called them righteous. And yet, in a very fundamental way, they exhibited the very same “righteousness” as Noach.
* * *
“Noach was a righteous man in his generation…”
On first reading, one could be forgiven for reading these words and taking them to mean that Noach was indeed a righteous man. We read further and we learn that he “walked with God.” How could we help but take these words to mean that Noach was a man of exceeding faith and holiness? However, a closer reading suggests a very different sense of who Noach was.
According to Rashi’s characterization of Noach, rather than a man of great faith is actually a man lacking in 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?
Perhaps to our eyes. But to our teachers and sages, the words carry a deeper truth. While Noach may very well have been a “…righteous man in his generation…” they correctly see that Noach has been “graded on a curve.” He is righteous not because he has risen to the level of a truly righteous man but because, when compared to his very depraved generation, he was the best of the bunch.
After one hundred and twenty years of building the ark, following God’s very specific instructions; after dutifully gathering two of every species, male and female, into the ark; after suffering the derision of his friends and neighbors; after the rains had begun to fall…he still did not believe!
How do we know this?
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.
He knew, but he didn’t really know.
Like our surfers, he knew that a mighty storm was coming intellectually. But he did not internalize that knowledge until his own physical experience forced him to react. He did not act because God had commanded him to but because he could feel the cold, wet waters rushing up against his shins!
Noach did not act from faith but from self-preservation!
Just like our young surfers had ample evidence to know a hurricane was upon them, Noach had knew that God was going to flood the earth but he held that knowledge at bay, it did not become an emotional truth until he felt the waters upon him.
A righteous man needs no such “proof” to have faith.
When God tested Abraham, telling him to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham had no external experience that could possibly have prompted him to do such an astonishing thing. He had only his faith, his real faith, carrying him forward.
* * *
Noach’s failing was in allowing distance to exist between what he knew and his actions. Like Noach, we all know that there is a Creator yet, almost to a person, the way we conduct our lives poorly reflects that knowledge. Oh sure, we attend minyan (sure to daven quickly enough to catch our train, or get to work) and we hurry home from work or from shopping or from other activities to light the Sabbath candles, but we are often so rushed that we are not in the true Sabbath spirit. We study Torah and attend shiurim but we do so with, at best, an intellectual zeal, never quite allowing our true spiritual selves to engage in the experience.
We all know there is a Creator, but we live our lives as if He isn’t immediately present.
Until the waters lap at our feet…
Noach’s faith was driven by his intellect; it had no passion or emotional intensity.
* * *
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, they are not personal.
If Noach had been asked, “Is the flood coming?” he certainly would have answered, “Yes.” But his response would have been an intellectual response, no different than the weatherman’s as he studies the potential paths a hurricane might take. It would not have been a fundamental, sensory response. He got the “concept”. He didn’t get the “reality”. Even when the rains began, Noach experienced them as just rains, not the beginning of God’s great punishment. It was not until the waters began to flood over his feet that he full being was called into action. This is real! And so, for this failing, 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 we 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.