Parashat Vayeira: Including the left in the right

The wandering Jew

Parashat Vayeira is the second parashah that deals with Abraham’s lifetime (the next parashah focuses on Isaac, even though Abraham was still alive). The parashah ends with the climax of Abraham’s service upon earth, the binding of Isaac, the tenth and final trial that he withstood.

Just as Abraham began his way in the previous parashah by walking towards an unknown land, “Go for yourself from your land… to the land that I will show you,” so God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac uses similar language, “Take your son… and go for yourself to the land of Moriah and offer him up there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will tell you.” Indeed, Abraham spent his entire life in a never-ending excursion, from when he first stepped out towards an unknown destination, through “Abraham traveled back and forth southwards,” then God commanded him, “Arise and wander the length and the breadth of the land,” followed by, “walk before Me and be sincere,” until his final expedition to Mt. Moriah. The sages describe “Abraham’s steps” as giant-steps that covered immense distances without ever tiring.

Obviously, Abraham’s walking is not merely a superficial act but is also symbolic of a profound spiritual advance to a specific goal. Where was Abraham really going? Could he not take a moment’s respite from constantly being on the move?

Loving-kindness and faith

The key to this question lies in the verse, “Abram traveled back and forth southwards.” According to Kabbalah, south, the brightest direction, always bathed in sunlight, represents the attribute of loving-kindness, whereas north is dark and represents the attribute of might, fear and contraction. Thus, Abraham continually developed his attribute of “loving-kindness” and his love for people and for his Creator constantly evolved.

In our previous article we mentioned Abraham’s transition from truth to loving-kindness and now we see that throughout his life his love continued to develop and every day he revealed anew that it is possible to be even more “southern,” more charitable and less contracted.

The right faith

In the Torah, south is on the right as opposed to north which is on the left. Yet, the root for “right” (ימין) is conjugate to the word “faith” (אמונה) so much so that it is sometimes interchanged in the Bible. So, in addition to Abraham’s constant improvement of his loving-kindness, walking southwards also represents developing his faith.

Indeed, Abraham excelled in his faith as he excelled in loving-kindness, as the verse states, “He [Abraham] had faith in God and He [God] considered it charity.” Abraham is considered to be the “head of all believers” and he established the true faith in one God and taught it to all of mankind. Walking represents a vector force of advancement towards faith. Obviously, only someone with great faith can walk towards the unknown and step out to sacrifice his son by Divine decree. Abraham’s faith was not stagnant but advancing, growing and flourishing as it emerged. Abraham revealed the secret of infinite faith.

These two connotations of walking southwards – towards loving-kindness and towards faith – are obviously connected to one another. One example of how the two are connected is demonstrated by Hillel the Elder, the man of unlimited loving-kindness, one of “Aharon’s disciples, [who] love[s] people,” who was not only such a humble and patient individual that no-one could never upset him, but he was also a man of great faith who trusted God to send him his sustenance, daily; “Blessed is God, day by day.”

The wondering Jew

Just as the limiting effects of judgment are relatively “left,” while loving-kindness flows freely from the “right,” so the pervasive power of faith on the “right” is balanced by the limits and boundaries of the intellect on the “left” (the “left” here refers to the left-hand side of holiness and not the negative “left”).

In this context, Hillel, the man of loving-kindness and faith, has his “leftist” partner, Shamai, who is more judgmental and also has a sharp mind, as the Talmud states that Shamai’s disciples were “sharper” than Hillel’s (nonetheless, the law is determined according to Beit Hillel because they were “lenient and self-effacing”) – Hillel on the right and Shamai on the left.

With this new perception, we now find that from a spiritual perspective Abraham constantly traveled back and forth between his “intellect” and his “faith.” Obviously, Abraham acted on the basis of a great deal of intellect, beginning his service of God with an intellectual inquiry that led him to realize that there is a Creator to the world, as Maimonides states so clearly, “he began to inquire even while he was still young and considered day and night… and his mind wondered and understood until he reached the way of truth and understood the line of justice of his own accord. Until he realized that there is one God.”

Abraham’s intellect led him to reach faith, a state of consciousness that is no longer governed by intellect alone. Despite the profundity of human intellect and its great expansiveness, it remains limited, while faith in God knows no bounds. Faith touches the essence, the very core of the matter that is above the mind. As we find in Kabbalah, that the super-conscious crown (the source of faith in the soul) is above all conscious powers including the intellect. Abraham put aside all the knowledge that he acquired through his intellect in the realization that as much as I already know, I actually know nothing; above all my knowledge is my simple and sincere faith.

This was not a one-time act on Abraham’s behalf, but a constant process of advance from intellect to faith. Abraham did not remain idle for a moment and he constantly devoted his mind and knowledge to understanding Divinity, so much so that new horizons of knowledge opened up before him every day. What he knows of God today is more than he knew yesterday, bringing with it a new “left” that requires him to move even more “right,” elevating himself from what seems to him today to be faith that is above his intellect until that too is understood and a new level of faith is born. Abraham traveled “Back and forth” from intellect to faith, to new intellect and newer faith.

The final journey

Abraham’s final journey to Mt. Moriah was the greatest pinnacle of faith that took him “right” to the farthest extreme. In Chassidut it is explained that each trial that Abraham endured was a trial of faith, the greatest being the trial of the binding of Isaac, which tested his faith to the ultimate limit. Human intellect is incapable of perceiving the paradox of the moment: God commanded Abraham to take his beloved, long-awaited son―the actualization of Abraham’s faith in God’s promise that he become “a great nation” and the embodiment of all his hope for the entire future―and to offer him up as a burnt sacrifice! How can this commandment not stand in direct opposition to the Divine promise that “In Isaac will be called your seed”? How can this not contradict the educational policies that Abraham has taught mankind? No logical explanation can be offered; but where the light of logic ends, the glow of faith begins to shimmer.

Inter-including the left within the right

Whereas Abraham represents the right, loving-kindness, his son, Isaac represents the left line, corresponding to fear and judgment. By binding Isaac to the altar and preparing to offer him as a sacrifice, it would seem that Abraham is finally victorious over the left and has reached the definitive right, climbing to the peak of pure faith and entirely discarding his intellect. Yet, in Kabbalah the binding of Isaac is not represented at all as an expression of the right’s victory over the left; rather as the “inclusion of the left within the right.” Abraham did not slaughter Isaac after all, God forbid, “Do not send your hand to the lad,” but only placed him above the wood and bound him there. Thus, the binding of Isaac by Abraham symbolizes the bonding of right and left together.

By explaining the binding of Isaac in this way, we infuse new significance in Abraham’s act. Our usual perception is that in order to create a new identity, we must distance ourselves from our old one. So it was that every time Abraham went “southwards,” to the “right,” he moved away from the “left.” Every additional step that he took in the direction of “faith”, he by necessity had to leave his intellect behind to some extent or another. Yet, at this highest level, the binding of Isaac teaches us that there is a way to advance towards our goal without abandoning our  past. When we step forward towards a new destination, we bring the past with us, fusing the two together in a complementary bond.

Abraham reached the climactic moment when he bound his son representing the left “upon the altar, above the wood,” but then God reveals that the ultimate purpose is not that the right should slaughter the left and overcome it, rather it should join together with the left until they arrive together as one at their common destination.

We can now understand that the highest form of faith is where our limiting, analytic intellect is somehow included within faith, toying with faith like a whale in the ocean and delving deeper and deeper into its depths.

Who leads?

At the end of this process we eventually reveal that Isaac, the “left,” is actually higher than Abraham, the “right.” Indeed, Abraham elevated Isaac upon the altar but there is no verse that states that Isaac ever descended from there. The sages state that Isaac became a “burnt offering” without ever being sacrificed.

In other words, through the act of binding Isaac to the altar, Abraham revealed that the soul root of his son is higher than his own. God is referred to as, “the Fear of Isaac” (פחד יצחק) but this phrase also means, “Fear will laugh.” The revelation that the left is included within the right is a complete innovation that brings indescribable joy and laughter to the world. Even though Isaac represents the attribute of judgment and fear, nonetheless, it is because of this that such great joy and playfulness emanate from him.

Indeed in Kabbalah it is explained that Isaac is a futuristic-messianic figure: Isaac (יצחק) laughs (צוחק) and Mashiach (משיח) rejoices (ישמח). Who will have the last laugh?

from the 13th of Cheshvan 5773 shiur

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Morten Christian Groth November 3, 2012 at 6:55 am

Unmistakeable wisdom! It was A Great Joy to read this . . .

Ed Israel November 5, 2012 at 7:13 am

Thank you. I understand.

Margery Libin November 16, 2012 at 5:18 am

Thank you for this most inspiring characterization of Yitzhok. It is a completely new vision of his strength and power.
Rosh Chodesh Kislev Tov and we pray for Israel's security, safety and peace.


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