Conflicted Belief

October 19, 2020

4 min read


Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32 )

Noah with his sons, his wife and his son's wives with him, went into the Ark because of the waters of the flood (Genesis, 7:7).

Rashi comments on the phrase" because of the waters of the flood" that Noah did not enter the Ark until the rising waters of the flood forced him to do so. Why? Because Noah was of diminished faith. He believed yet did not believe that there would be a flood.

The Torah commentaries struggle with Rashi's statement. The Torah describes Noah as being “a perfect tzaddik.” How can a perfect tzaddik be lacking in faith? Furthermore, just what is meant by "he believed yet did not believe?" This statement appears to be an internal contradiction.

The Steipler Gaon provides us with an important psychological insight. Knowledge of something can be of two types: There can be an intellectual knowledge and an emotional knowledge. For example, a person may have a desire for something, and is told to avoid going after it because there is excessive radiation in that area and the exposure is dangerous. If his desire for the object is intense, he may risk the exposure. However, if the object is in a building that is aflame, even an intense desire will not make him risk his life. Why the difference? Because a person does not see radiation. One can understand that radiation can be dangerous and even lethal, but this is an intellectual awareness, which can be overcome by an intense desire. The danger of fire, however, is grasped emotionally, and is strong enough to override temptation.

Rashi is not critical of Noah, who was indeed a perfect tzaddik and had a complete intellectual faith in the word of God that there would be a flood. Rashi does not say that Noah was lacking in faith. Indeed, his faith was complete, but was of a lesser quality because it was only intellectual. This is what is meant by the phrase, "He believed yet did not believe." Noah believed intellectually, but not emotionally. Perhaps Noah was simply incapable of having an emotional awareness, and this limitation was not his fault.

The Steipler Gaon's explanation is of great practical value. I see this regularly in my work treating alcoholics, who typically do not accept treatment to stop their destructive drinking until they hit rock-bottom, i.e., until they experience a severe crisis which forces them to acknowledge their problem. In my book, Substance Abusing High Achievers, I cite cases of people of the highest intellect who know that their drinking is destructive, yet are unable to stop. One physician who was the director of a treatment center for alcoholics and who regularly saw the ruination caused by alcohol was himself a heavy drinker. His intellectual awareness of the dangers of drinking was not enough to make him stop.

Billions of dollars have been spent to prevent young people from using drugs. None of the many prevention programs has proven effective. This is because regardless of how much we impress youngsters with the dangers of drugs, they achieve only an intellectual awareness, which is not sufficient to overcome the emotional desire to get “high.”

Distraught parents whose child wishes to intermarry desperately try to discourage this move in every possible way. They have the rabbi talk to their child and they may take him or her to a psychologist. Rarely are these efforts successful. The child may understand why he should not intermarry, but this intellectual knowledge does not change his mind.

What can be done to prevent young people from self-destructive behavior? Unfortunately, very often nothing can be done. Parents agonize over their powerlessness to prevent their child from harming himself. They can only hope and pray that the child will come to his senses, and this may occur only when the child eventually experiences the harmful consequences of his actions.

Even Noah, "a perfect tzaddik" believed yet did not believe.

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