Avraham and Noach stand in stark contrast to one another. Noach was a follower. He did what he was told, exactly what he was told, no more and no less. He was told to build an ark, “and Noach did all that God had commanded him” (Bereishit, 6:22). He was told to enter the ark, “and Noach did all that God had commanded him” (7:5). He showed some initiative in sending forth the raven and the dove, but even when the ground was completely dry he remained in the ark until God told him to exit. Only then did he leave (8:18).
Obedience to God is praiseworthy; Noach was “righteous in his generation” (7:1). But there can be no vision, no inner-direction, and no initiative in a person who is simply obedient. Without specific instructions, such a person will be lost. Consider: God could not simply tell Noach to build an ark; Noach needed to know exactly how to do it – how many stories, how wide, how long. Every detail needed to be spelled out. It is therefore no surprise that Noach did not try to warn people or get them to repent. It’s not that he didn’t care; he simply lacked initiative and imagination.
When the flood was over, Noach did two things. First, he offered a sacrifice. While this was done of his own initiative, the act of sacrifice is, in its essence, an expression of submission. One of each animal was offered on the altar, a statement that all life – human life included – owes its existence to God, and that all life ultimately belongs to God. Noach was ready to submit to anything God asked of him, but the Divine commands were no longer forthcoming. So what did Noach do? He planted a vineyard and got drunk. The entire world was a blank canvas spread before him, but Noach was a rule-follower, not an artist. He had no idea what to draw, and possibility and potential only filled him with anxiety and uncertainty. So he gave up; he withdrew; he became numb.
Noach’s righteousness and obedience merited that he and his family be saved. The fact that there were people prepared to listen to God proved that the enterprise of humanity was not a complete failure; it ensured that the world could continue. But, ultimately, God does not want simple followers; God wants partners. This is where Avraham comes in.
Avraham does not wait for God to tell him what to do. Following some inner-drive or intuition, Avraham and his family were already on their way to Canaan before God commands Avraham to go (12:31). And when Avraham responds to God’s command, lekh likha, we read, “And Avraham went as God had spoken to him, and Lot went with him.” This is not exactly what God said, but no matter. It is not in violation of God’s command, and Avraham takes the liberty to make some decisions for himself.
Noach needs everything spelled out to the smallest detail. Avraham just needs to be pointed in the right direction. Let’s not forget that Noach “walked with God” whereas Avraham is told, “walk before Me and be perfect.” The path to perfection is in anticipating God, in heading towards the Promised Land even before one is commanded.
In fact, only once does the Torah state that God “commanded Avraham,” and that Avraham “did as God had commanded him” (21:4). Avraham’s greatness was that, even when he was listening to God, he was not primarily following God’s command but partnering with God’s vision.
Just as we are told that Noach built altars and offered sacrifices upon them, we are told that Avraham built altars, but we are never told that he offered sacrifices (12:7, 8; 13:18). Whether sacrifices, with all they express in terms of submission and obedience, took place at these altars is of secondary significance to the larger religious goal that the altars serve, for what Avraham does do is “call out in the name of God.” These are religious centers where he can spread the word about God, bring people closer, and change the world. Perhaps this is why the only sacrifice commanded of Avraham is that of Yitzchak, and the only one does offer is the ram in Yitzchak’s place. For Avraham, whose life was not about sacrifice and submission, one ultimate expression of this was demanded of him.
Avraham was driven from within; he had a passion and a vision. Hence the centrality of the word li’rot, “to see,” in the entire Avraham narrative: “Go to the land asher arekha, that I will make you see.” Time and again God appears, va’yeira, to Avraham. God tells Avraham to look to the stars, to look in all directions of the land of Canaan. Hagar sees the angels and calls God e-l roi. Perhaps most significantly, Avraham sees the mountain of the akeida from afar and tells Yitzchak that God will see for Godself the sheep that will be for slaughter. Avraham’s mission starts with following God’s vision, going to the land that God has enabled him to see. His ongoing mission is to continue to see as God would see, to partner with God in God’s vision for the world.
These two themes – obedience and vision – stretch all the way back to the creation story. In the end of each of the six days of creation God sees and it is good. To be created in the image of God, then, is to be able to distinguish between good and evil, to be able to see as God would see. And when first created, human beings were given not a command, but a mission and a blessing: “fill the earth and conquer it.” It was only after that God “commanded Adam” to not eat from the tree (2:16). At least, we have to be able to follow God’s commands. At best, we will be able to follow God’s mission.
Sometimes, however, being mission-driven might make it hard to follow directions, especially when they don’t seem consistent with the vision or to fit the larger mission. And so Avraham regularly argues and debates with God, asking how he knows his seed will inherit the land, why God’s promise of a child has yet to come to fruition, appealing on behalf of Yishmael, or most famously, arguing in defense of Sodom and Amorah. Discussions and arguments are the result of looking for partnership and not just blind obedience. But ultimately, this relationship is far superior. Not only is a partner more invested than a follower, but their voice and their contribution become part of the mission and the vision as well.
This is the true meaning then of brit, a concept introduced in Parashat Noach that only comes to its fullest sense here. Prior to Avraham, God made a brit with the land, the animals, and the humans to never again destroy the world. This was a unilateral arrangement and gave no further purpose to those in the brit. But when God makes a brit with Avraham, it is because he has found a true partner. Avraham is asked to be a part of creating the brit. The sign is not a rainbow in the sky but actions that Avraham himself takes: first, the severing of the animals to have God’s flame pass through them, and then, for all generations, the circumcising of the flesh as a sign on the body. One’s very self is marked because it is a brit, a relationship that binds the person to God, that makes the person a partner with God.
For generations, Orthodoxy has been good at following the lead of Noach. Now we need people who are prepared to follow the lead of Avraham. We need those who not only follow God’s commands, but who also strive to see the world as God sees it, who work to partner with God in spreading God’s word and in changing the world.