“Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow,” begins the famous Uncle Moishy song. Rather, “walking beside me” and being “my friend” is the ideal in the children’s song. A parallel to this is found in the first Pasuk of Parashat Noach, where Noach is described as, “Tamim Hayah BeDorotav Et HaElokim Hit’haleich Noach” (6:9). However, Avraham Avinu is commanded to do something different: “VaYeira Hashem El Avram VaYomer Eilav Ani Keil Shakai Hit’haleich Lefanai VeHeyeih Tamim,” “And Hashem appeared to Avraham and said to him, ‘Walk before Me and be Tamim” (BeReishit 17:1). If the ideal is “walking beside” Hashem, what could this phrase mean? Why is God requesting something from Avraham that is seemingly not ideal?
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 Mefarshim maintain that this Pasuk refers specifically to the Mitzvah of Berit Milah that God gives Avraham a few Pesukim later. Ibn Ezra understands that by saying “VeHeyeih Tamim,” God enjoins Avraham not to question why he is commanded to perform the Berit 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 of Avraham with the description of Noach yields a different understanding. 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 is able to withstand the taunting of skeptics for one hundred and twenty years. This consistency earns Noach the titles of “Tzadik” and “Tamim.” On the other hand, the Midrash also rebukes Noach for waiting to enter the Teivah until God starts the flood. Because he is so dependent on following God, Noach is 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, is 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 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 Parashat VaYeira. 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 leads to his discovering God. His trust in God allows him to jump into the blazing fires of Nimrod, even without an explicit command to do so or a promise to be 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 in which no clear mandate or law exists. 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 than Noach did.
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, the one that Noach takes, 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 in which 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.