Avraham bursts onto the scene in the opening of Parshat Lekh Lekha. He follows God’s command, goes to the Land of Canaan, and everywhere is calling out in the name of God, and bringing monotheism to the world. Late in the parsha, God appears to Avraham and commands him in the brit milah. This section opens with God saying to Avraham, “Live in My presence and be perfect.” (Gen. 17:1). This verse invites comparison with a similar verse in parshat Noach, “Noach was a righteous man, perfect was he in his generation, with God did Noach live.” (Gen. 5:9). Rashi already emphasizes the difference between “with” and “in My presence,” although he emphasizes this contrast by translating “presence” as “in front of Me.” Noach, says Rashi, was not so righteous and needed to live with God’s support, but Avraham could strengthen himself in his righteousness and did not need God’s support. Drawing the contrast this way, however, ignores the fact that Noach is described as “perfect” and “righteous” whereas Avraham is commanded, “be perfect,” suggesting that right now, he was not perfect, that he was perhaps even on a lower spiritual plane than Noach.
I believe, however, that it is not a question of a lower or higher spiritual plane, but of different types or personalities in general and of religious personalities in particular. Who was Noach? The basic answer is – we have no idea. There is no sense of Noach the person in the Torah. He does not speak, he does not initiate. The only time he speaks is at the end of the entire narrative when he is reacting to the actions of his sons. As to his initiative – the narrative is very clear. God commands, and Noach does. “Make for yourself an ark”… “And Noach did everything that God commanded him, so he did (5:14, 21). “God said to Noach – enter into the ark”… “And Noach did what God had commanded him.” (7:1, 6). Even when it comes to getting out of the ark, Noach waits for God’s command: “Get out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you.” (8:16).
It is true, that there is some initiative -he does send out the raven and the dove, he does bring a sacrifice to God (perhaps he got the idea, according to Rashi, because he was told to bring 7 pairs of the tahor species), he does plant a vineyard and get drunk. These actions, however, are totally unremarkable. He remains a person without personality, without initiative. And this – perhaps in addition to survivor’s guilt – is why he gets drunk immediately after exiting the ark. God has now given him an entire planet, a blank slate, and it is his task to fill it, to build a new society, and help God create a new world. And he has no idea what to do. Give him an order, and he will follow it. Give him a world, and he is overwhelmed- he gets drunk, he runs to escape.
Noach, then, is righteous and is perfect, but in the narrow sense. He does exactly as he is told, but he lacks the capacity to do anything on his own. Noach lives “with God.” He walks lockstep with God, and his actions are exactly what God has commanded. He is the perfect student – the one who gets down every note, does every assignment, gets 100 on every test, but has no personality, and never says, thinks, or does anything original. There is no creativity, there is no spark. Such a person’s life – unless their personality changes – will remain very static. There is no dynamism, and no growth. Noach is already perfect. God cannot say to him “be perfect,” because he will never “become.” What he is, he already is. If there is one phrase to describe Noach, it is that he is the faithful servant. It is great having faithful servants, but they can be a little boring.
Avraham, in contrast, is all personality, initiative, speech and action. Avraham already began going to the Land of Canaan before God commanded him (Gen 11:31 – of course, this may have been Terach’s idea). God does not spell things out for Avraham as he does to Noach. Compare the detailed commands regarding the ark (5:14-21, including how many levels and what material to use), to the simple statement “Go, you, to the land which I will show you.” Avraham needs not to be told, but to be shown. He needs God to point the direction, but then he must be allowed to search for it and to seek it out. He brings – and needs to bring – the fullness of his personality to serve God, all of his passion for God, all of his love, all of his creativity. And this means pointing the direction and then getting out of the way. To give Avraham detailed commands is to stifle him, is to reduce him. It must be he who is serving God, not an automaton. Perhaps this is the use of the word lekha, Go for you, in the opening verse. While commanded by God, the going must also be your going, it must be uniquely yours.
Avraham does not need to be saved to build an altar to God – even the promise of the future inheritance of the land fills him with hope and gives him direction: “And he built an alter to God who appeared to him” (Gen 12:7). Once inspired, once given the spark and shown the direction – he can be left to his own devices, and the next time, he builds an altar without waiting for God to appear to him, and spreads the word of God without being commanded: “And he built an altar to God and he called out in the name of God” (Gen. 12:8).
Avraham is not the obedient servant. He does not need to be told exactly what to do. He also does not always do exactly what he should do either, but these slips are minor. God knows that he can trust him, that he will bring his energy and his passion to his serving of God – that he will be not just God’s servant, but also God’s partner. “Because I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him to observe the way of God, to do righteousness and justice.” (Gen. 18:19). And because Avraham has a mind of his own, and a personality of his own, he is able to argue with God. He complains that God’s promises have not yet been fulfilled, “and I am still going childless,” (Gen 15:2), he argues for Yishmael not to be overlooked: “Were that Yishmael would live before You.” (Gen 17:18), and of course – in contrast to Noach he never tried to save his generation, Avraham argues passionately and profusely, yet humbly, for God to spare the evil city of Sodom.
Avraham lives not “with” God, but in God’s presence. All of his actions are inspired by and directed to God, but he is not walking lockstep with God. He is his own person, with the fullness of his personality, who is living his life in God’s presence. And because of his passionate, creative, and complex personality, there is dynamism to the relationship and there is growth and change. “Live before Me and be perfect.” It is a constant striving towards perfection. A striving that will never be realized, but is that much more valuable because the striving, and with it, the growth and the dynamism, the creativity and the passion, will always be present.
This idea of “becoming” rather than “being” is thus the perfect introduction to God changing Avraham’s name and commanding him to perform the brit milah. Avraham’s relationship with God is such that he changes in the process. He started as an Avram, but he has now become an Avraham. He is now to make a covenant with God, and make the sign of it in his flesh. But he was not born circumcised. The nature of the brit is that it is one of making oneself better, the relationship with God is about “becoming” perfect, not being perfect.
Said another way, Avraham is not the “Avraham the faithful servant,” he is rather “Avraham, the one who loves Me.” (Isa. 41)
‘Love the Lord your God,’ – like Avraham… what this means is, that because Avraham loved God, as the verse testifies, “Avraham who loves Me,” (Isa. 41)… he therefore expounded to people about the true faith because of the strength of his love for God.” (Rambam, Positive Mitzvot, 3).
To love God is to always be thinking about God, always talking about God:
What is the proper [degree] of love? That a person should love God with a very great and exceeding love until his soul is bound up in the love of God. Thus, he will always be obsessed with this love as if he is lovesick. [A lovesick person’s] thoughts are never diverted from the love of that woman. He is always obsessed with her; when he sits down, when he gets up, when he eats and drinks. With an even greater [love], the love for God should be [implanted] in the hearts of those who love Him and are obsessed with Him at all times as we are commanded [Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love God…] with all your heart and with all soul.” (Rambam, Laws of Repentance, 10:3)
In our interpersonal relationships this is what we look for as well. We look for love and relationship, not lockstep obedience. We want our children and our spouses to be their own, full, wonderful people with creativity and personality. We do not want them to be attached at our hip, to live “with” us. We want them to be the fullness of themselves, but to always be living their lives in our “presence” – always in the context of family and relationship.
Of course, in our relationship with God, obedience is key. We must be fully faithful to God’s commandments, and fulfill them to the best of our ability. But, when we serve God, when we obey God’s mitzvot, we still can choose between two types of relationships. We can choose the “faithful servant” mode, which asks us to jettison our personality, and to do everything perfectly, exactly as told, no more, and no less. Or, we can choose the “one who loves Me” mode. A relationship where we can – nay, are asked to – bring the fullness of our personality into the relationship, that there is dynamism and creativity in the relationship. That we spend our lives striving to become perfect, not to stay perfect. A life where we can sing, dance, eat, make love, build buildings, heal patients, go on vacations, drive the car, study science, study literature, learn Torah, go to shul, do mitzvot – all in the presence of God. A life where we will sometimes argue with God, but that our relationship will be that much stronger because of it.
Some people choose the first mode, and live the lives of faithful servants. Others are told to live the first mode, and find it stifling of their personalities. They find their relationship to God to be a straitjacket, and cast it off at the first possibility. This first mode is the life of Noach. The story of the Jewish People is the life of Avraham. Let us make our relationship to God one of bringing our complete selves into the relationships. Let it be a life not of being perfect, but of striving to be perfect.