Parshas Noach relates the awful destruction the world suffered when the entire world was flooded as a consequence for the immoral behavior practiced by earth’s inhabitants. Almost no one was spared from this calamity. In preparation for this, God instructed Noah to build the ark in which he and his family would live, together with all the animals who would survive as well.
This was not a small project. Noah spent many years building the ark and had certainly well anticipated the flood. Nevertheless, our Sages (see Rashi 7:7) derive from the verses that Noah did not firmly believe that the flood would really come, and it was only when the water rose to threatening levels that he actually entered the ark. It wasn’t until the last minute that he entered the ark which he worked so hard and so long to construct.
How do we reconcile these two opposing acts? How can it be that Noah exerted himself to build this ark, only for the purpose of saving himself from the flood, while simultaneously lacking in his belief that the flood would actually occur?
The Birchas Peretz resolves this contradiction with a principle in human nature. There is a vast distance between the head and the heart. We can have intellectual awareness of something, but at the same time be very far from truly absorbing the reality of the information in our minds. While Noah may have understood on an intellectual level that there would be a flood, the reality of this fact did not take root in his consciousness, until he actually saw it happening.
The Birchas Peretz cites a story in the Talmud (Brachos 28b) which demonstrates this concept. When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was on his deathbed, his students requested that he bless them. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai said, “May it be the will [of God] that the fear of Heaven should be upon you as the fear [one has] of [a being of] flesh and blood.” His students were surprised at this blessing and said, “Is that it?” Meaning to say, isn’t it proper that the fear one ought to have of God should be much greater than the fear one has of people?
Rabbi Yochan ben Zakai responded, “If only it would come true! I will prove it to you: when a person commits a sin, he says to himself, ‘As long as no one sees me.’”
Certainly, the students were correct that there is much more reason to be afraid of God than of people. However, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai’s point was that practically speaking, the fear of humans is much more real to us. While one may understand intellectually that there is much more reason to fear God than people, the fear of people exists much stronger on an emotional level. This is why, when doing something wrong, a person naturally is more afraid of being caught by people, even though he knows that God is watching him the whole time.
Although a person understands that God will hold a person accountable for his misdeeds, he doesn’t feel this reality so strongly until he works on making it a reality in his heart. Therefore, if one were to achieve the same level of actual fear of God as one fears other people, he will have accomplished a great deal. Taking our knowledge of God and making it into a reality in our hearts on the same level as one feels the reality of man is a tremendous accomplishment.
This is a phenomenon we all experience and can attest to. It’s not enough to read Torah wisdom or listen to a lecture. While the first step in growing in our service of God is to learn and understand Torah concepts intellectually, doing so alone is very far from changing us. In order to achieve greatness in life, we need to take the time to contemplate the concepts of the Torah and work on turning them into a reality in our hearts. Without doing so, one can be like Noah, who hears a direct warning from God about a looming catastrophe, spends a lot of time and effort securing a means for safety, yet still acts as if there might not really be anything to fear. The distance between intellectual knowledge in our heads and feeling its reality in our hearts is very vast.
Success in life depends on the extent to which we turn the concepts of the Torah into reality in our minds. The only way to accomplish this is by consciously thinking about them. When we contemplate the existence of God and His greatness, the reality of the World to Come, the fact that one will suffer for transgressing the laws of the Torah, etcetera, we begin to make these concepts part of our lives. By turning the spiritual concepts of the Torah into reality in our minds, we will begin to ascend a ladder of true greatness in life!
Parshas Noach by Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber