Why was Avraham chosen? The Torah doesn’t say. Without preamble, God commands Avraham and sends him on his mission. “And the Lord said to Avraham, lekh lekha, get yourself out… and go to the land that I will show you” (Breishit, 12:1). This is in stark contrast to how the Torah introduces us to Noach and to his divinely-given task. In that story, we are first told that “Noach was an ish tzaddik, a righteous man, blameless in his generation, and Noach walked with God” (6:9). Only afterwards do we read, “And the Lord said to Noach… make for yourself an ark…” (6:14). God even tells Noach directly why he was selected for this task: “The Lord said to Noach, ‘Go into the ark… for you alone I have found righteous in this generation'” (7:1). Noach was chosen because he was righteous, but what about Avraham?
Further comparison between Avraham and Noach begins to yield an answer. Noach was indeed a tzaddik, he did everything he was supposed to do. He wastamim, blameless, never doing anything wrong. He was good at following rules, at keeping on the straight and narrow. That is no small thing. How many of us can say that we are blameless in all of our actions. And yet to do what you are told is not the same as showing initiative. To follow orders is not to be inwardly directed, to be driven by a sense of mission.
The first command that God gives Noach is asei, “make”: “Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood…” The verb is repeated over and over again in the paragraph: “… make it with compartments… And this is how you should make it… A light you should make for the ark… bottom, second and third decks you shall make it.” God tells Noach to do, and he does: “And Noach did just as the Lord had commanded him” (7:5). The verse describes Noach to a tee: Noach is all about listening and doing, no more, no less.
This is the reason Noach does not try to influence the people of his generation. It is not because he does not care for them. It is merely because God didn’t tell him to do so. And it is because he only does as he is told that he needs his orders to be highly specific. Think about all the detail that he received regarding the making of the ark, the number of the animals, the species of animals, the need to take a male and female of each species. One imagines that, for someone else, a simple command to make an ark and save all the animals would have sufficed. But for Noach it all needs to be spelled out.
The image of the ark riding the waves of the flood, buffeted by the winds and the rain, captures the essence of who Noach was: a man who could not navigate through a storm, who could not impose his will against the waves of society. The most he could do was stay safe, to be blameless. He could never act on his own.
Even when Noach showed some initiative and sent out first the raven and then the dove, he did not act on the information that he gathered. He knew the waters had abated, he knew when he removed the cover of the ark that the ground had dried, but he stayed in the ark. He was unable to leave the ark until God told him explicitly to do so!
This realization helps explain why Noach’s first act was to plant a vineyard and get drunk. This is often explained as a type of survivor’s guilt, but I believe something else is at play.
Noach had the entire world before him. Imagine this never-to-be-repeated opportunity. He could shape world society, its institutions, its values, its sense of purpose, all according to his vision. There was only problem: He had no vision. And without his own vision, and without orders and directions from others, he had no idea what to do with himself. His life had suddenly become purposeless and meaningless.
Now, even people who feel directionless often maintain a sense of momentum and movement, simply because of the society that they are a part of. They wake up and get out of bed each morning if for no other reason than they have a job to go to, bills to pay, and a spouse and children who depend on them. But Noach had none of this structure. With a world full of potential waiting to be built, Noach ironically had nowhere to go, nothing to do. After he had landed, he was more adrift than ever. His one survival strategy was to get drunk, to anesthetize himself, and to sleep through the remainder of his life.
Avraham was the opposite. God does not tell Avraham to do, but to go. Not asei, but lekh lekha. And we don’t read that Avraham did all that God had said, but rather va’yeilekh Avram, “and Avram went.” If Noach had a task, Avraham had a mission. A task is one particular thing to do. It may be a huge task, but its specifics are known and its details are spelled out. A mission may not have any particular tasks identified, but it has a vision, a sense of where it is going.
Avraham was given a mission: Leave your father’s house; go to the land that I will show you. How to get there, exactly what to do – all of that could be worked out later. And for that, Avraham did not need God’s instruction. He could figure that out for himself.
Avraham had all the inner-direction that Noach lacked. He had even started heading to the land of Canaan before God had spoken to him. Perhaps that is the meaning of the word lekha. Go “for you” – trust yourself, follow your inner-directed path, let Me just point the way.
If Noach was a boat adrift on the waves, Avraham was a laser beam, an arrow heading straight for its destination with nothing able to stop it or move it off its way. If Noach was helpless in the face of a world waiting to be built, a society waiting to be shaped, Avraham was driven to confront an idolatrous, hostile world and to bring to it the message of a single, ethical God. He would reshape society according to his vision, according to God’s vision.
If Noach was completely silent, Avraham spoke eloquently and passionately, proclaiming his beliefs, communicating his vision, attracting followers, and influencing all those with whom he came in contact. He was a man driven by an idea, by something he so believed in that he had to share it with the rest of humanity.
The command to go, lekh, indicates not only direction and vision but movement. Noach was static; he was a tzaddik. That is an already actualized state of being. Avraham was dynamic. He was not about what he had accomplished but about what he could do in the future.
In fact, in all the stories of Avraham, he is never described as “righteous” or “perfect” or actually with any adjectives at all. We hear that when he believed in God’s promise it was considered an act of righteousness (15:6), but never that he himself was a tzaddik. And far from telling Avraham that he is perfect, God tells him, “walk before me and become perfect” (17:1). To be a tzaddik, to be perfect, is static and boring. To have a mission, in contrast, is to always be working to do righteous acts, always striving to become more perfect.
Avraham was chosen not for who he was, but for who he could become. Not for what he had done to become righteous, but for what he could do to change the world. The Torah, in fact, tells us so: “For I have chosen him [or “singled him out”], that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord, doing what is right and just” (18:19). Avraham was chosen because he could transform the world, because he could educate future generations not just to be, but to do. And not just to do what is right and just, but to follow a path, to keep the “way” of the Lord, to find their own lekh lekha, to pursue a vision guided by God. Avraham was chosen to found a nation that would know that to live a religious life is not just about tasks, not just about obedience, but about living a life of direction, a life of destiny.