God’s command to Avram, “Walk before me and be perfect,” presents two difficulties and several questions, beckoning us to take a closer look [Genesis 17:1]. It is puzzling because we were told that Noah walked with God [Gen. 6:9] and Enoch walked with God [Gen. 5:24]. We would think that we should either walk with God or follow God, as it says twice in Deuteronomy, “God, your God, shall you follow, and God shall you fear” [Deut. 13:5], and that God goes before us [Deut. 31:8]. “Walk before me” affirms one of the basic tenets of Judaism: that we must perform an action to receive results from life.
Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk described this as the shefa, flowing through the pipeline of blessings. It is the principle of spiritual growth through the mitzvot, a series of choices by which we participate as God’s partner in our own spiritual development. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that the verb “hit’holech” (walk) means “to go one’s own way… impelled by one’s own free-willed decision and inner energy.” This mirrors the words “lech lecha,” sometimes translated as “go for yourself,” as Moses said in Deuteronomy, “for your own benefit” [Deut. 10:13].
Not only Judaism but all of life works this way. We have to put our energy into the world to make a living, to achieve in school, and to carry out our plans. We receive love when we give it. This is the way reality is structured.
God always dignifies us by asking us to make a choice: of acting or not acting, which is the opportunity reflected in our dietary laws; or of agreeing or disagreeing, as when God very formally asked Moses to present us with the offer to become His most beloved treasure of all peoples and to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation at Sinai [Exodus 19:3-6]. The act of choosing to set apart objects and actions as holy or not holy is one of core principles distinguishing the Jewish spiritual path, found here with Avram (not yet Abraham), the first Jew. By His asking us to choose allows us to form an authentic relationship with a personal God. The Covenant (of circumcision) is a Covenant of mutual choice and mutual acceptance, as both God and Abraham have obligations to the Covenant. The act of circumcision is, as the Torah tells us, a sign of that Covenant but not the Covenant itself (as is sometimes misunderstood).
The commandment to “be perfect” is a second puzzle that teaches us another core principle in Judaism. We think of a healthy baby as born perfect. How can a person become more perfect by circumcision, having something taken away? The Sfat Emet says that “one who serves God out of love” and seeks “complete surrender” of will is “the way we attain a new enlightenment, one beyond nature, as did Abraham.” God is asking Abraham not only to diminish his physical body, but, more importantly, to negate his ego, becoming greater by becoming less. If we think we know better than God and God’s teachings in Torah, it is difficult for us to learn or grow in goodness. We have to make room not only for God’s guidance and ultimately God’s presence in our lives, but also for others and their egos. Perfection in the relationship between us and others involves finding the humility to live with each other in peace, which is similar to finding that perfection in our relationship with God.
The word “tam” (“perfect”) can also be translated as “complete” or “whole.” Perhaps God is showing Abraham a path to becoming all that he is capable of being, expanding into all the possibilities of who he was destined to be. We are capable of infinite expansion into our wholeness, always an active participant in our becoming. When we choose to shrink our ego, we perfect ourselves and have the ability to bring more goodness and peace into the world.
We will never be fully complete or perfect, and yet by walking before God and dedicating ourselves to deepening our humility, we can expand into more of who we were meant to be.
Rabbi Jill Hausman is the spiritual leader and cantor of Congregation Ezrath Israel, The Actors’ Temple, in Manhattan.
Shabbat Candles: 4:26 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 12:1-17:27
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27-41:16
Havdalah: 5:25 p.m.