The Jewish story begins with parshat Lekh-Lekha, when G-d tells Avraham “Go to the land which I will show you.” The patriarch faithfully sets out towards the land of Cannan, which later becomes the Land of Israel. To understand the religious character of Avraham, it is helpful to compare him to Noah, the main character of the previous parasha.
Regarding Noah, the Torah tells us “אֶת־הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ – Noah went with God.” Contrast this with the verse regarding Avraham: “הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י וֶהְיֵ֥ה תָמִֽים – Go ahead of Me and be perfect.” What can we learn from the difference in how these two men walked in relation to G-d? Hazal explain that Noah was not fully righteous and needed G-d directly alongside him for support. Avraham, however, was completely righteous and could set off on his own without G-d’s support.
I’d like to take the contrast further. Noah is a character who is completely obedient. G-d says “Build an ark,” and Noach says “How high?!” And G-d lays out a detailed blueprint – 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits, with three levels and a window – an exacting level of detail rarely encountered in the Torah, outside of the Mishkan.
Noah needs exact direction, and with it he will accomplish the assigned task exactly. This character trait also explains why Noach got drunk in the aftermath of the deluge. Some explain that he was driven to this by a survivor’s guilt, but that isn’t the full story. Noah was given an entire world to populate, build and shape; a blank canvas on which to paint. For Noah, that was a terrifying proposition. He couldn’t take even the first step. He had no vision for how to move on so he escaped to the bottom of the bottle.
Avraham is the opposite. He receives broad and general instruction from G-d, “Go to the land I will show you,” and Avraham heads out. The verse never tells us that God showed him the land; when he reaches Cannan he knows instinctively that it is the correct place, the place that God has chosen. And later, in the story of the Akeidah, G-d similarly commands him “Go to one of the mountains that I will tell you,” and Avraham goes to the correct mountain with no additional instruction at all! Avraham so intuits what God wants from him, that we hear at the end of last week’s parasha that Avraham actually began heading to the land of Cannan without any instruction from G-d! He just needs a small nudge to keep going, and he is propelled from within.
Avraham is not one whose service to God is defined in terms of obedience with exacting attention to every tiny detail. Obviously, he is a devout follower of the Almighty, willing to sacrifice his own son, but he is guided by a sense of the big picture. What does G-d want from me? How can I make this world better? How can I shape this world in the vision of G-d, into what G-d wants it to be?
Avraham goes to the land “אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ – that I will show you.” He is able to see a vision of what that land will look like. And he goes throughout that land and calls out in the name of G-d, bringing more and more people to belief in a single, ethical God. He’s changing the world without being commanded to do so, because he has a sense of what it is to be nourished by a religious vision and to work to realize that vision.
For us, leading a halakhic life starts with being a Noah, with a detailed observance of halakha. Yet the goal lies beyond that. While we remain anchored in a world of observance, we aim to achieve Avraham’s level of vision.
There actually is a middle stage between vision and simple obedience. It is a sense of mission, an internalized belief that one has a job to do in this world, and that it is her responsibility to do it. To observe a halakhic life with a sense of mission is to have a sense of purpose, to feel commanded.
Many people live their halakhic, religious lives out of a sense of mission. But how many of us ever cultivate a sense of vision? To ask why God has sent us on this mission. What is God and the Torah trying to achieve in the world? What does a more Divine world look like?
My bracha to all of us is that we should start in parshat Noach, and that we should ascend from Noach to Avraham; from “אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ,” going with G-d, to “הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י וֶהְיֵ֥ה תָמִֽים,” going in front of G-d, driven by a religious vision with God there right behind us all the way.