“Walking with G-d”
By Rabbi Michael Menitoff, Dean of the AJRCA Rabbinical School
More of the rabbis than not are invested in circumscribing and limiting the righteousness of the protagonist of this week’s Torah reading, Noah, especially when comparing his qualities of heart and mind with those of the patriarch, Abraham. While both Noah and Abraham are referred to as tamim (blameless or whole-hearted), in Noah’s case, that may well be modified by the ambiguous qualifier, “in his generations.” Maybe he was better than the corrupt people around him. However, had he lived in Abraham’s much improved generation, “..he would have been considered as naught” (Rashi). Truth to tell, the characterization of Abraham as tamim is not without its own qualification. G-d enjoins him, “..heyey tamim.” (“Be blameless”). Abraham still had to incorporate that quality into his person. He was not yet there.
However, the more telling point of departure for the less stellar portrayal of Noah compared to the luminosity of Abraham has to do with their modes of responding to respective tragedies which were engulfing them and their communities. In response to G-d’s invitation to build an ark to save himself, his family, and the various animal species from a devastating flood, Noah assiduously complied but, did nothing more. Contrastingly, when confronted with G-d’s anticipated destruction of Sodom, Abraham poignantly advocated for the people. He raised the issue of the possibility of righteous people dying alongside the wicked. He had the audacity to challenge G-d, “Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” The contrast between Abraham’s concern for others and Noah’s strict constructionist compliance is striking.
Finally, those invested with characterizing Noah’s mediocrity vs. Abraham’s superiority point to verses which refer to their respective walking partners. On the one hand, “Noah walked with G-d.” On the other, Abraham is told by G-d, “Walk before me.” Summarizes Rashi, “Noah needed support, but Abraham strengthened himself and walked in his righteousness by himself.”
Let us not take anything away from Abraham’s heroism and his gift of illuminating a dark path. Nevertheless, greater credit might also be given to Noah, who need not have required that G-d be next to him, (notwithstanding the skeptical midrashic picture of Noah “sinking in the mire”). indeed, the walking partnership was probably of mutual and reciprocal uplift, as both G-d and Noah were strengthened by it. There is something particularly edifying and lovely about walking with G-d, as did Noah. Would that we ourselves all have such an experience.
These thoughts are being penned a few days after the horrific mass shootings at Umpqua Junior College in Roseburg, Oregon, in which ten people died. The responses of some of the heroic victims who survived are instructive. One brave army veteran is said to have been shot several times while rushing towards the gunman to try to stop him. Another courageous victim who had been shot to the ground had the presence of mind to play dead, a ploy which probably saved her life. Two very different responses of two people in different circumstances; one more assertive and the other more restrained. Each was valid and noble in its own way.
Our world is made up of all kinds of people. G-d walks with all of us if we ourselves choose to walk with G-d. It makes no difference whether we are iconoclasts like Abraham or simply decent, law-abiding, rank-and-file citizens like Noah. G-d walked with Noah and Abraham as He continues to walk with us.