Walking in Front of God? by Rabbi Yehuda Chanales


 “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow,” begins the famous Uncle Moishy song.  While “walking beside me” and being “my friend” may be the ideal in the children’s song, Avraham Avinu is commanded to do something different: “VaYeira Hashem El Avram VaYomer Eilav Ani Keil Shakai Hit’haleich Lefanai VeHyeih Tamim,” “And Hashem appeared to Avraham and said to him, ‘Walk before Me and be Tamim” (Bereishit 17:1).  What does this phrase mean?  What is God requesting from Avraham?

Rashi, based on the Targum, understands that walking in front of God is simply an alternate way of telling Avraham to follow God’s command by worshipping Him.  In this way, Avraham’s actions would be directed towards God as he performed His commandments.  Radak adds that being Tamim refers to the all-encompassing nature of the worship required.  The first monotheist is asked to harness both emotional and physical energies in his quest to serve God. 

A number of other Meforshim maintain that this Pasuk refers specifically to the Mitzvah of Brit Milah that God gives Avraham a few Pesukim later.  Ibn Ezra understands that in “VeHyeih Tamim,” God enjoins Avraham not to question why he was commanded to perform the Brit Milah.  Accordingly, Tamim may be translated as “simple” rather than complete, pointing to the simple-minded, blind-faith attitude that God is requesting. 

Contrasting this command to Avraham with a parallel description of Noach yields a different understanding.  At the beginning of last week’s Parasha, Noach is described, “Tamim Hayah BeDorotav Et HaElokim Hit’haleich Noach” (6:9).  Instead of walking in front of God, Noach was someone who walked together with God.  Why is Noach praised as someone who walked “with” God, while Avraham is told to walk “in front” of Him?

Standing alone in a world filled with corruption and immorality is no easy task.  According to the Midrash, Noach was able to withstand the taunting of skeptics for one hundred and twenty years.  This consistency earned Noach the titles of “Tzaddik” and “Tamim.”  On the other hand, the Midrash also rebukes Noach for waiting to enter the Teivah until God started the flood.  Because he was so dependant on following God, Noach was incapable of anticipating God’s will before being told explicitly how to act.  This type of personality may maintain the inner strength to withstand negative pressures but will be too timid to take the risks necessary to lead and inspire others to do the same.

Avraham, on the other hand, was capable of taking initiative. In the Pesukim themselves, Avraham learns to take advantage of opportunities to teach others about God and does not simply keep his new relationship with God private.  (See Bereishit chapter 20, the story with Avimelech.  In truth, one may notice a development in Avraham’s character in this regard between the stories in Parashat Lech Lecha and the stories in Parasha VaYera.  The stories parallel each other in a number of ways and may emphasize this shift.  Perhaps this command - at the breaking point - serves as the transition.)  The Midrash explains how Avraham’s inquisitiveness led to his discovering God.  His trust in God allowed him to jump into the blazing fires of Nimrod, even without an explicit command to do so or a promise of being saved.

This attitude stems from a high measure of self-confidence and independence.  Avraham is capable not only of walking “with God,” but, indeed, walking “in front” of Him, searching for opportunities to apply his understanding of God to new areas and to anticipate Retzon Hashem even in areas where there is no clear mandate or law.  Cognitive psychologists agree that extending and applying ideas requires a deeper, broader, more complete understanding of the material.  To be both willing to and capable of being the “Av Hamon Goyim,” “father of many nations” (17:5), Avraham must have developed a deeper, broader, and more complete understanding of God himself.

In our own religious lives, it is often easier to define ourselves based on those around us.  We are always capable of finding others who we are better than we are.  Taking this reactive, passive perspective allows us to comfortably maintain the status quo, tinkering with change only when “explicitly commanded.”  From an educational perspective, this attitude demands that we discourage taking risks and that we keep children away from areas where there is no clear religious directive.  In certain situations, this perspective is not only recommended, but is absolutely necessary.  Nevertheless, as children of Avraham, we must follow in his ways and be willing to walk in front of God as well.

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The Making of a Tzaddik by Yitzchak Richmond