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Earning the Privilege of Walking Before God

  • Earning the Privilege of Walking Before God

    Noach, Genesis 6:9−11:32
D'var Torah By: 

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.

Just Follow My Orders and Don't Rock the Boat!
Davar Acher By: 
Marlene Myerson

The Torah teaches us basic Jewish and universal truths through the stories of individuals and the events of history. We are encouraged to find meaning in these stories and to use them to understand and to better ourselves.

In Parashat No'ach, we are introduced to Noah, one of the great biblical personalities in the Book of Genesis. We are told that Noah was an ish tzadik, tamim hayah bedorotav - "a righteous man, blameless in his generation" - and that "Noah walked with God." (Genesis 6:9) The rest of humanity, however, was corrupt and God decided to destroy it, choosing only Noah and his family to be the survivors of a great flood. God commanded Noah to build an ark and to take into it pairs of all animals found on earth. Then God brought a great flood that covered the earth, destroying all living creatures except Noah, his family, and the paired animals on the ark.

At first glance, it seems obvious that Noah was indeed a great man and certainly worthy of our praise and admiration. After all, he was the progenitor of a new human race. While the rest of humanity was corrupt and engaged in lawlessness, only Noah was willing to listen to God and follow God's instructions.

The rabbis who wrote the Midrash Tanchuma lay the blame for the flood directly on the shoulders of the people of the time. The rabbis explained that the building of the ark was intended to serve as a warning, but the people of Noah's generation paid no attention: They were given the opportunity to change but they ignored it.

However, not all Jewish commentators agree that Noah did everything he could have done to save the other people of his time. The Zohar suggests that Noah was only interested in saving himself and his family. He did not intervene or speak up for the people of his generation when he was told that they would be destroyed. In contrast to Noah's behavior, we have only to look at Abraham's response when God declared the imminent destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham argued passionately with God on behalf of the cities' citizens. Even though the people were corrupt, dishonest, and violent, Abraham tried to save them and their cities. As Dow Marmur illustrates, we are told that "Abraham walked before God" (Genesis 24:40).

As we seek opportunities in our own generation to make our world a better place not only for ourselves but for the rest of humanity, we are challenged to combine Noah's faith and devotion to God with Abraham's willingness to take risks, provide leadership, and show the way.

Let us not be afraid to rock the boat! Let us not be content to merely "walk with God." Rather, let us strive, like our forefather Abraham, to "walk before God."

Questions for Further Discussion

  • The rabbis have offered many opinions regarding the kind of person Noah really was. Some are positive and some are negative. What do you think the Torah means when it says that Noah was a "righteous man, blameless in his generation"?

  • Because of Noah's devotion to God and his willingness to obey God's instructions without question, Noah was able to save himself, his family, and all the paired animals on the ark. Could he have done more? Explain.

  • Rashi states that Noah needed a great deal of support because he "walked with God" but Abraham was very independent and strong in character because he "walked before God." Needing support and showing strength are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Describe a difficult situation in which you have used both of these qualities and behaved (a) like Noah and (b) like Abraham.

10/24/1998
Reference Materials: 

Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 57-91; Revised Edition, pp. 57-83; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 35-58