Walk With Me & Show Me The Way
Sermon from our latest Ramah Shabbat at Bnai Israel Congregation in Rockville
I don’t know if you’ve had the experience of knowing someone based on their walk. It’s dark out, maybe a dimly lit street, and you see someone walking, silhouetted and indistinguishable. Do they sway their arms wildly? Do they shuffle back and forth? Maybe they walk stiff and straight, arms at their sides. Are they fast? Slow? Do they look around when they walk?
I’ve been told I have a distinct walk — that my walk is more like a run. I just think of it as being from New York, and trying to keep up with the world around me. My wife walks a bit slower, takes her time, moseys. That’s the Minnesotan in her. Growing up with two older brothers and a dog in a split level house, I could always tell who was walking around outside my room based on the sounds of their walk, and the vibrations in the floor. The most determined step — that was my mom, always with a purpose. The light feathery pitter-patter — my dog, Sadie. My brothers: more of a stomp, but one a bit quicker than the other.
Have you had that experience? Knowing someone else’s walk, knowing even your own walk?
How we walk is a distinct marker of who we are. It tells us someone’s pace in life. It tells us what they value, where they’re from and where they’re going. A walk tells us someone’s abilities, their passions. For some people, their walk is not a walk at all, but a roll, and that tells us about their life, their story, and their journey.
His walk is the first thing we learn about Noah. Noah, the man of the flood, the righteous man who survived his wicked generation — the first thing we learn about him is that he walked with God.
Noah was a righteous man; he was righteous and wholehearted in his generations; Noah walked with God.
At this point in Genesis, this tells us a lot about Noah. His walk was a testament to his character. He stuck close by the values and beings that meant the most to him. His walk tells us that Noah kept God at the forefront of his mind.
But when it comes to walking in relation to God, Noah wasn’t the only person described in such a way. One week from today we’ll read about a different Biblical walker. It;s not the first thing we learn about him, but actually one of the last, and in this case less a description and more a command.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk before me, and be whole-hearted.”
Between this week and next week we have the image of two godly walkers: Noah, who walked with God, and Abraham, who walked in front of God. And the question has been raised before: what is the difference, and what does this tell us about each person? Rashi responds:
R’ Solomon b. Isaac (RaSHI)
Noah walked with God • In the case of Abraham Scripture says, (Genesis 24:40) “The God before whom I walked”; Noah needed God’s support to uphold him in righteousness; Abraham drew his moral strength from himself and walked in his righteousness by his own effort.
Rashi explains for us that although both Noah and Abraham were upright citizens who lived their lives in close proximity to the Divine, Noah could only do so with the leg up from God, physically, and Abraham in his spiritual strength, confidence, and independence was able to walk just a few steps ahead of God.
Rashi borrowed this explanation from an earlier midrash in bereshit rabbah:
BERESHIT RABBAH 30, 10 (trans. adapted from Nehama Leibowitz)
“Noah walked with God.” R’ Yehudah said: It may be compared to a king who had two sons, an older and younger one. He said to the younger one, walk with me; and to the older: come and walk before me. Thus to Abraham, whose spiritual powers were superior, [God] said: “Walk before Me, and be wholehearted.” But Noah, whose powers were inferior, it is stated as follows: “Noah walked with God.”
What is significant here is not as much the difference in how they walked, but rather in God’s ability to discern their walks and to place them in just the right position. To know what each of your children need, and to set them up for success, so that each of them may one day be chronicled has having been righteous and whole-hearted — this is to do well by them as a parent or teacher.
But the Midrash continues:
R’ Nehemiah said: It may be compared to the king’s friend who was sinking in the swamp. The king looked and saw him, and said to him: before you sink into the swamp walk with me. It is therefore written: “Noah walked with God.” To whom may Abraham be compared? To a king’s friend who saw the king walking though a dark alleyway. His friend seeing him began to show him a light through the window. When the king looked up and saw him he said to him: before you give me light through the window come and give me light in front of me. Thus said the Holy Blessed One: before you give light for Me in Mesopotamia and its neighbors, come and give light before Me in the land of Israel.
What is the king’s unique skill here? The midrash wouldn’t have brought a second story just to rephrase the same lesson from the first. R’ Nehemiah’s innovation has to do with the direction of shining light. In this case the king knew that shining a light at someone is quite different from shining a light ahead of someone. Think of the two lights: what do you feel when someone lights a lamp ahead of you? Compare that now with the feeling of having a light shined on you, like sitting at an interrogation table, being probed stressfully for answers or results. The first is refreshing, the second oppressing. The direction of our love is more important than its potency; the strongest light, shined ahead of someone, can guide their path indefinitely. Shined at them, it could blind them permanently.
Such is our value as a nurturing summer community for children and young adults. On this Ramah Shabbat, we are celebrating our communities from Camp Ramah in New England and the Ramah Day Camp here in Germantown, places of compassion and concern that seek to shine a light ahead of our campers by identifying their unique walks. It’s not just the sports, arts, and outdoor exploration that make Camp Ramah special — it’s not in the informal curriculum of our Jewish educational program. It’s not even in the wacky, zany, unbridled fun that characterizes our camp atmosphere. The magic of Camp Ramah is in the way we see each person for their own unique walk, and we place them beside us or ahead of us in the way they uniquely need. The magic of Ramah is in our efforts to shine a light ahead of each Ramahnik — camper and staff — not at them, to guide them along on their unique Jewish journey.