The opening verse of Parashat Noach describes Noach as a “righteous man” who “walked with G-d” (“et ha-Elokim hit’halekh Noach”).  Seforno explains “walking with G-d” to mean, “He followed His ways, helping others and rebuking his contemporaries.”  As opposed to other commentators, who portray Noach as disengaged from his society and apathetic to the moral decline that characterized his generation, Seforno maintains that the Torah specifically describes Noach as a sensitive, engaged individual who treated others with kindness and made a sincere effort to influence them positively.  Seforno makes a similar comment earlier (5:24) in explaining the Torah’s description of Chanokh as “walking with G-d.”  There, too, Seforno explains this phrase as referring to kindness and an attempt to exert positive influence.

Both these men, Noach and Chanokh, were eventually separated from the people of their time because of their exceptional piety.  Noach was protected from the floodwaters which ravaged his contemporaries by being secluded in an ark, and Chanokh, as Rashi explains, was taken to Gan Eden alive so he would not fall prey to the negative influences of the people of his time.  We might have assumed – and some sources indeed express this view – that Chanokh and Noach were permanently separated from their contemporaries specifically because they had chosen to separate themselves.  As righteous men living in a corrupt, sinful world, they chose disengagement and detachment, and G-d advanced this process further by extracting them permanently from the rest of the world.  This reading might seem consistent with the phrase “walk with G-d,” which could be understood to mean adhering to G-d to the exclusion of other people, distancing oneself from society for the purpose of clinging to spirituality.

Seforno, however, apparently could not countenance such an interpretation.  In his view, “walking with G-d” can only mean adhering to the Almighty’s example of kindness, sensitivity and direct, intensive involvement in human affairs.  If a person clings to G-d, then he does what G-d does – he compassionately cares for other people and seeks to provide their needs.  Just as G-d descends, so-to-speak, to care for human beings, people who “walk with G-d” are those who – not despite their lofty stature of piety, but specifically because of their lofty stature of piety – are engaged with society and with people of all kinds in order to care for them and benefit the world.  According to Seforno, “walking with G-d” cannot possibly refer to isolation, but must absolutely refer to active involvement and genuine concern.

Originally posted on VBM

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