Elli Schwarcz -Noach and Avraham: Seeking Perfection


Last week we began learning about Noach- and about differences between him and Avraham Avinu. In this week’s Parasha, Hashem tells Avraham to perform Brit Milah, circumcision- a commandment that includes a familiar verse:

And Avraham was 99-years-old, and Hashem appeared to him, and said to him, “I am ‘Keil Shakay’; walk before Me and be complete.”
-Lech Lecha, 17:1

-As we discussed last week, this expectation that Avraham ‘walk before’ God- proactively influencing those around him to believe in and serve Hashem- shows how highly Hashem regarded him. We’ll return to this verse later; for now, let’s review everything else we’ve learned so far about Noach and Avraham.

•    Noach is called ‘righteous, complete, in his generations’.
•    Noach ‘walked with Hashem’.
•    Some say that Noach was righteous even in his generations; had he lived during Avraham’s time he would have been much greater. According to this view, Noach’s walking ‘with Hashem’ was not a shortcoming but a necessity of the time; he had no choice but to avoid the negative influences that surrounded him.
•    Some say Noach was only righteous in comparison with the people of his time; had he been in Avraham’s time he would have not been considered anything. This opinion also compares negatively Noach’s ‘walking with Hashem’ with Avraham’s walking ‘in front’ of Him.
•    Hashem had Noach build an ark- a big ship in which to survive the Mabul. The length of the project allowed people to ask Noach about it and to learn of their need to repent- but they did not.

However you analyze the verses regarding Noach, the Torah does call Noach righteous and complete. He excelled, the Talmud explains, in both thought and deed. Ramban teaches that he was totally deserving of being spared where an entire world was found guilty. Clearly, Noach was a tremendous person. There is only some doubt as to whether he could compare to a giant like Avraham- and even then the comparison may be valid.
In fact, the Chasam Sofer (Rav Moshe Schreiber, 1762-1839) and Rav Shamshon Refael Hirsch (1808-1888) give us an amazing yet simple perspective on Noach in ‘his generations’:

Both interpretations are correct; Noach, if judged by his actual spiritual state, was nothing in comparison to Avraham- but that was only because of the generation that he lived in. Had he lived in Avraham’s time, Noach would have been naturally able to reach much higher levels! Thus, Noach did his best, but was limited by circumstances- and still, he is called righteous and complete.

-Tremendous. Now, let’s try to figure out the difference between Noach and Avraham’s circumstances, to better understand the difference in the paths they took in serving God.

Noach lived in a totally corrupted generation- worthy of destruction. Avraham’s generation was not as evil. According to the Zohar, Noach did not actively attempt to influence his generation- only if he would be approached might he be open to explaining his stance. Avraham, on the other hand, was just the opposite in this regard. The Torah mentions Avraham’s outreach activities many times. He also prayed for the wicked people of his generation, whereas Noach did not. Now, if Noach was actually comparable to Avraham despite this major contrast, perhaps each acted in the way he deemed best in his own situation. Noach refused to mingle with the evil in his time, while Avraham felt able to influence the somewhat better public in his time.

Avraham and Sarah ‘converted’ many people to the recognition and service of Hashem:

‘And the souls that they made in Charan’

Gemara Avodah Zarah 9: “They converted people.”

While they were tremendously successful and respected, Hashem demanded- and promised- even more; ‘Go for yourself… to the land that I will show you. And I will bless you and grow your name, and you will be for a blessing’ (-Lech Lecha). This was a charge to spread faith in Hashem in the Holy Land, and a promise that he would be even more influential in his life’s mission. 24 years later, Avraham was ‘visited’ by Hashem:

And Avraham was 99-years-old, and Hashem appeared to him, and said to him, “I am ‘Keil Shakay’; walk before Me and be complete.

And I will give my Brit (Covenant of Brit Milah), and I will make you exceedingly great.

-Lech Lecha, 17:1-2

Apparently, this commandment to circumcise himself, his son and his household was an invitation to a new, even higher spiritual level- thus, the call for ‘completeness’. Actually, the Talmud (Gemara Nedarim 32a) relates that Avraham was at first terrified when Hashem told him to be complete; this seemed to imply that he was not yet complete, and was lacking in his service of God! Only upon hearing the second half of the sentence- that this ‘perfection’ was to be reached through the mitzvah of Brit Milah- did Avraham calm down.

There is so, so much to think about here:

  • Avraham felt he was as complete as he could be without circumcision; this is why he calmed down after realizing that only Milah would make him even more complete.
    •    Circumcision perfects a person- but how?
    •    What is the connection between Avraham’s path of influencing the public and the elevated perfection attained through Milah?
    •    Noach was called ‘complete’ although he did not receive the mitzvah of Milah, and although he did not actively influence people.

Keep in mind also the contrast that our Rabbis draw between Noach and Avraham: Noach walked with Hashem, and Avraham (here) was found able to go ‘in front’ of Him. The very same verse that seems to elevate Avraham above Noach uses the same term- ‘complete’- that was used for Noach!

The ‘Netziv’ (Rav Naftoli Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-1893) explains Hashem’s ‘appearance’ to Avraham in an incredible way. The task of Man- and really the purpose of the entire world and its creation- is to bring honor to Hashem.

As we’ve discussed before, He definitely does not need it, yet He grants us the privilege of fulfilling His will in this way.

Avraham was directly involved in this task; his life’s work was to bring people closer to God. Yet as much as he had succeeded until now, the mitzvah of circumcision was a higher calling…

Hashem gave the command for Milah using His name of judgment- Elokim (see Pesach Treats: Yitzchak’s Blessings):

Says the Netziv: this Name represents more than just Judgment; it also represents God as Creator of the Universe- and so was the Name used in the first verse of the Torah:

In the Beginning, God (Elokim) created the Heaven and Earth.

Milah was meant to bring Man to self-perfection within the role assigned to him from time eternal; it would bring him to show the world God’s Glory. Where Man had been previously incomplete in his global influence without the Milah, he was now elevated and more fitting for the task.

Somehow, though, Noach did achieve something of this level, whereas Avraham is praised for an even deeper accomplishment in perfection and influence.

We should tie together the different questions and concepts that are still in flux.
Next week, I hope we will do just that.

*All agree that there will be a period of devastation; see Rashi to Rosh Hashana 31a.

Have a great Shabbat!

Elli Schwarcz


Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.


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