Tuesday, October 12, 2010

One Step Ahead (portion Lech L'chah)

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’chah, God tells Abraham, “Walk in My ways and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1). The language here is strikingly similar to the description of Noah that we read last week: “Noah. . . was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.”

For the talmudic Rabbis, such parallels beg for commentary, so they offer an insightful comparison between these two biblical patriarchs. While both are clearly depicted as righteous, the Rabbis make a good argument for Abraham’s moral superiority. A close reading of the text notes that while Noah’s blamelessness is qualified by the term “in his age” (as I noted in this forum last week), the injunction to Abraham is unqualified. Furthermore, while Noah walks with God (et ha-Elohim), God commands Abraham to walk ahead of the Divine Presence (hithalech l’fanai). Noah is present with God, step by step—but Abraham actually takes the lead, with God’s blessing.

This difference in “walking” is borne out in the lives and actions of Noah and Abraham. When God tells Noah about the coming deluge, Noah does as he is told and builds the ark. He saves himself, his family, and the selected pairs of animals, but does not protest on behalf of the rest of humanity. By contrast, when God informs Abraham of the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham steps up and argues on behalf of their citizens: “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty. . . Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

Noting this distinction, the Hasidic tradition calls Noah a tzadik im pelz—a righteous person in a fur coat. When everyone is freezing, he covers himself with warm garments, without regard for those around him. Abraham, on the other hand, lights a fire that warms everyone in the room.

We Jews are the descendents of Abraham. It is not enough for us to walk with God; God asks us to take the lead in healing what is broken in our world. Self-interest is valid, but it is insufficient. As Hillel notes, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” Our challenge is to act in ways that spread the light and warmth beyond our own households. To be a Jew is, by definition, to be engaged in the affairs of the wider world, and to work for justice for all.

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