What Noah is to humanity, Abraham is to the Jewish people. Both were destined to initiate something new: Noah became the ancestor of a renewed humankind; Abraham revolutionized faith by relating to God in a new way.
As human beings, we look to Noah-the second Adam-and his family for our origins; as Jews, we are the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Noah is our human ancestor, but Abraham is our Jewish role model. That our Jewish descent is not a matter of biology is attested to by the fact that every Jew-by-choice is to be called "son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah." All people are the children of Noah, but only Jews are the descendants of Abraham.
The similarities between Noah and Abraham also point to differences between the two. Thus we are told in the very first verse of the parashah, Et ha'Elohim hithalech No'ach, "Noah walked with God." (Genesis 6:9) Later in Genesis (24:40), Abraham says about himself, Adonai asher hithalachti le'fanav, "God before whom I walked."
Rashi notes the difference between et ha'Elohim, "with God," and le'fanav, "before God" and explains: "Noah needed God's support to uphold him [so he walked with God], whereas Abraham drew his strength from himself and walked in his righteousness by his own effort [therefore, before God]."
Both Noah, our biological ancestor, and Abraham, our spiritual father, "walked." But based on the difference he perceives between "with" and "before," Rashi discerns a distinction between the second Adam, Noah, and the first Jew, Abraham: Noah had not reached his full potential because he only walked with God; Abraham, in contrast, took the initiative and paved the way for God in the world by walking before God.
To be a Jew is to be like the rest of humanity, only more so. Jewishness requires additional obligations and initiatives on our part.
This, in turn, raises the issue of the chosen people. We Jews are not special because of our genes but because our ancestor showed us how to make way for God. Other peoples can be "the sons [and daughters] of Noah, "God-fearing Gentiles who "walk with God" and whom Jews respect and honor. But we Jews must aspire to be more: we must be the forerunners of God, the trailblazers for humanity. It is an obligation and a burden that can become a privilege, but we must earn it.
It is our role to alert others that the divine command is central to human existence by walking ahead of it. We have been chosen to be the chalutzim, the pioneers of humanity who pave the way for God in the world. To be a privilege, chosenness must become a mission.
In the messianic future, when our testimony will have been affirmed by all, the nations of the world will emulate us and come to worship God the way we worship God. In the meantime, our role is to show the way.
As of this writing in 1998, Dow Marmur was serving as the Senior Rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, ONT.