Noah as an Enigma

A study of Noah's level of faith - and ours.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

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Noach (Noah) is an enigma. He is introduced to us as a righteous man, perfect in his generation. Our sages pick up on the qualifying statement of being perfect in his generation. While some consider this high praise, others see in this a diminution of his greatness  had he lived in the time of the Patriarch Abraham, he would not have been considered righteous at all.

Both views are then bolstered by the same verse. After spending 120 years building the ark according to Hashems specific instructions, after gathering animals of every species into the ark, after it actually starts raining heavily, Noach finally goes into the ark because of the waters of the flood. Not because Hashem commanded him, but because the flood waters had reached his ankles and he was forced inside. It is this delay that our commentators criticize and for which they call Noach a man of little (small) faith.

Did Noach really have little faith that the flood would come? Rabbi Frieman in Shaarei Derech, citing the Baalei Mussar, explains that there is a difference between intellectual knowledge and emotional certainty which propels you to live and act by that faith. Certainly Noach knew that Hashem would flood the earth, but he never internalized that belief to affect his innermost belief. In order to act on this intellectual knowledge, Noach needed an external stimulus, the waters at his ankles.

Rabbi Gifter focuses precisely on this point, that absolute faith requires no external stimuli. And this is precisely the challenge we face today, notes Rabbi Frieman. We certainly have many men who sit and learn, many women attending shiurim, many Jews who observe Torah and mitzvoth, but much of this is external, without the inner passion and joy that true faith and commitment would demonstrate. This may be compared to someone who seems perfectly healthy on the outside, but further testing reveals a deep seated inner disease. In short, we must feel the joy of Yiddishkeit in our innards, our kishkes.

As Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz points out in The Six Constant Mitzvoth, we all know theres a Creator, but do our everyday actions in business or society reflect that knowledge? Do we rationalize our actions with, Yes, I know, but …” When we eliminate that but we begin living our faith. We are surrounded by that knowledge, but it has not penetrated our inner core.

How do we bridge this disconnect? Rabbi Frieman suggests we be consistent in our davening and in our learning. We will begin feeling the connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, the Holy One, and every time we pray or study Torah, we will be strengthening that connection.

But it is not enough to have the perspective of a life based on faith; one must actualize that perspective in life, notes the Sefas Emes. Our goal should be to have a positive emotional reaction every time we do a mitzvah, to feel happy, writes Mizkeinim Esbonan citing the Steipler Gaon.

In Ohr Doniel, Rabbi Ochion presents a wonderful analogy from Rav Elya Lopian. The Torah itself compares Man to a tree of the field. As long as a tree is attached to its roots, it is vibrant and bears fruit. However, once it is cut off from its roots, it dries up and bears no fruit. Similarly, we must feel the nourishment coming from our roots, providing our lifeblood and our excitement in doing mitzvoth. This excitement is what we must transmit to our children.

It is this excitement and passion that was missing from Noachs faith, this connection to his roots, and that is why Noach was ineffective in influencing his generation to change, unlike Avraham Avinu who created many converts to monotheism, adds Rabbi Benzion Zaks in Menachem Zion.

Since our commentators compare Noach and Avraham, it would now be beneficial for us to try to understand these two personalities more fully. The Shem MiShmuel contrasts them beautifully by indicating that Noach was born perfect and holy while Avraham had to work on himself to create the holy personality he became. The Shem MiShmuel compares Noach to Shabbat, the Sabbath, a day that is intrinsically holy, and Avraham to the holidays whose holiness is determined by mans work at identifying the new moon and the subsequent designation of the Sanhedrin.

Noach, who was intrinsically holy, having even been born already circumcised, spent his life maintaining that spirituality without building on it, while Avraham spent his life constantly working on his connection to his Creator.

But Shabbat is meant to be more than just a passively sacred day when we rejuvenate physically with our Shabbat afternoon nap, writes Rabbi Kofman in Mishchat Shemen. Shabbat  is a day to work on our internal rest and to focus on whats truly important, like family. It is a day to verbalize our belief in the Creator as an antidote for being of little faith. Noach should have known this and worked on building the structure of his faith.

Rabbi Pincus in Nefesh Shimshon describes the essence of Shabbat as compared to the holidays, and what it should mean in our lives. While each holiday encapsulates a beautiful scene that identifies it, Shabbat is more like a mirror with no content of its own. On Shabbat, we disengage from the world, both in our home and outside it, and we enter Hashems domain, His house. To do that, we must pay attention to everything we do so that we are always cognizant of what we are permitted to do in His house.

The entire world ceases to exist, and we are left alone with Shabbat and the presence of Hashem. When the world ceases to exist, we are left only with Hashem, and we are transported to a higher plane of existence, to an intimate relationship with our Father, our Creator.

            We have been discussing Noachs faith as lacking in passion and emotional connectivity. But we can also examine Noachs lack of faith from other perspectives. Rabbi Dinner in Mikdash Halevi, for example, posits that Noach assumed that the people would repent at the last minute and Hashem would rescind the decree. In other words, Noach had more faith in the people than he had in Hashems prophecy. Along a similar line, Rabbi Yosef Salant, the Beer Yosef, writes that Noach believed that Hashem was all merciful and therefore would not destroy the world.

To better understand Noachs failure of faith from this perspective, it is helpful to discuss the two commandments pertaining to our relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu, as discussed in Six Constant Mitzvoth by Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz. Rabbi Berkowitz distinguishes between Ahavat Hashem, love of Hashem, and Yirat Hashem, fear (awe) of Hashem, and then explains how they are interconnected.

We are commanded to believe that Hashem loves us, but we must be careful not to let that understanding undermine our fear of the Almighty and expect Hashem to forgive our transgressions. A good parent must often dispensetough love to teach a child that his actions have consequences and to prepare him to lead a happy and fulfilling life. In this context, writes Rabbi Berkowitz, permissiveness would be weakness, not love. Similarly, Hashem wants to prepare us for the ultimate joy of spending eternity in His presence, and therefore He must dispense punishment as a consequence of sin, not as revenge, so that we will merit that ultimate pleasure of eternity in Gan Eden.

Although Noach was full of Ahavat Hashem, continues Rabbi Berkowitz, his lack of faith was in Yirat Hashem, for he could not fathom that Hashem would carry out his decree and enforce the consequences of sin.

Rabbi Pincus elaborates on this theme in the essays of Tiferes ShimshonEmunah, faith, is beyond our understanding. How can one understand that He Who is of infinite love can also punish so consummately? This was Noachs dilemma. Noach didnt pray for his generation because he couldnt reconcile these two aspects of Hashem, and because he didnt pray for his generation, the flood is called mei Noach, the waters of Noach.

Contrast this behavior, notes Rabbi Pincus, with the rent clothing and prayers of Mordechai as soon as he heard of Hamans evil decree. Certainly Mordechai understood Gods unlimited love, but he also feared Hashem and the consequences of sin Hashem could mete out. This fear of Hashem is something we must work on, for we are inclined to rely on Gods love and His desire to forgive us.

Fear and awe of God is grounded in ones ability to follow Hashems command even when it goes contrary to our personal logic, as Abraham, Avraham Avinu, did when he was commanded to bind his son Yitzchak on the altar.

Do we really believe each of our actions has consequences, as the Torah enumerates? Do we really believe we constantly have free choice, to choose light and life or darkness and death? We can be caught in a constant inner struggle between faith and lack of faith by believing in the power of free choice while discounting the negative consequences of our poor choices.

Do I really believe the world was created for me, and if I cause a group to curtail their Torah study five minutes early, for example, there will be ripple effects throughout the universe, and conversely, do I believe that my one act of kindness, chessed, or mitzvah observance also has such ripple effects? If I can internalize that concept, and live my life constantly with that thought, I would achieve true, full faith.

Nevertheless, Noach was a great man, and the Modzitzer Rebbe writes in his sefer Divrei Yisroel that the description of Noach as one of little faith refers not to Noachs faith in Hashem, but rather in his lack of faith in his own merit as someone worthy of being saved. According to this interpretation, Noach had no doubt Hashem would bring the flood He had decreed, but he waited until the flood waters reached his ankles because of his humility, because he had little faith in himself and his own worthiness.

Full faith and belief in our Creator takes many forms, including faith in ourselves as reflections of His image. Perhaps the greatest challenge of every Jew is to internalize the faith we are born with so that we can truly approach our potential as human beings and as Gods emissaries on earth.