Abraham constantly advanced from intellect to faith until the surprising climax at the Binding of Isaac
Parashat Vayera is the second Torah portion that deals with Abraham and his lifetime. The next two portions focus on Isaac, even though Abraham was still alive until Jacob and Esau were fifteen years old. The portion concludes with the tenth and final trial that Abraham endured, the climax of his service upon earth: the Binding of Isaac.
God commanded Abraham, “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.” This sounds similar to God’s instruction to him in the previous parashah, “Go for yourself from your land… to the land that I will show you.” From that first commandment, Abraham spent his entire life on a journey. Upon his arrival in Canaan, “Abraham travelled 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.” Throughout his life, Abraham took giant-steps that covered immense distances on his journey to the unknown. In Parashat Vayera we reach his final expedition to Mt. Moriah.
Abraham’s journeys are not just physical, but also symbolic of a profound spiritual progress. Where was Abraham heading? Could he not take a moment’s respite from being constantly on the move?
The key to this question lies in the verse, “Abram travelled back and forth southwards.” The south is where the sun reaches its peak at noon, and it is the direction that is always bathed in sunlight. In the Torah, south is also referred to as “right.” In contrast, north is dark and is referred to as “left.” In Kabbalah, the right hand represents loving-kindness, and the left hand, might. Abraham always chose right as his direction, as he told his brother-in-law, Lot, “If you turn left, I will turn to the right.” Thus, Abraham’s continual advance “southwards” relates to a corresponding advance in his attribute of loving-kindness, as his love for people and for his Creator constantly develops. In Parashat Lech Lecha, Abraham transformed his attribute of truth to love, and throughout his lifetime he improved and augmented his loving-kindness, revealing how he could be even kinder, more generous and more openhearted.
The Right Faith
In addition to its association with loving-kindness, “right” (יָמִין) is conjugate to “faith” (אֶמוּנָה), so much so that the two words are sometimes interchangeable in the Bible. As Abraham continually becomes more “right-wing,” his southward progression also represents developing his faith.
Indeed, Abraham excelled in faith as he excelled in loving-kindness, as the verse states, “He believed in God and He considered it charity.” Abraham is the “head of all believers.” He established the true monotheistic faith and disseminated it to mankind. Thus, Abraham’s advance represents a vector force that heads towards ever-higher levels of faith. In fact, Abraham revealed the secret of infinite faith; a faith in God that constantly progresses and flourishes as it emerges.
These two connotations of walking southwards—towards loving-kindness and towards faith, are closely related. Hillel the Elder is another example of an individual who revealed both attributes at a very high level. Hillel was a “disciple of Aaron, [who] love[s] people,” and he practiced and preached this doctrine of loving-kindness, even to those who deliberately attempted to undermine his self-restraint. Yet, he was also a great believer, who trusted that God would send him his daily sustenance, saying “Blessed is God, day by day.”
Loving-kindness flows freely from the right, but is restricted by the limits of might and fear on the left. Similarly, the far-reaching power of faith is balanced by the limits of human intellect. This is illustrated by Shamai, Hillel’s “left-wing” study partner, who was the stricter and more judgmental of the two. Indeed, Shamai and his disciples were intellectually “sharper” than Hillel. Hillel, with his high level of faith in God, is on the right and Shamai, the intellectual, is on the left. Nonetheless, the law is determined according to Hillel’s school of thought because they were “easy-going and self-effacing.”
The Wondering Jew
With this new perception, we can contemplate the spiritual meaning of Abraham’s journey from left—his “intellect”—to right—his “faith.” Maimonides states that Abraham began his intellectual inquiry at a young age, pondering day and night until he reached the truth and inferred of his own accord that there is only one God, who created the world. Thus, Abraham began his service of God with rational analysis. However, Abraham’s intellect led him to transcend logic and reach the super-conscious realm of faith. The essence of faith lies beyond the rational mind. Despite the profundity of human intellect and its broad scope, it remains limited, while faith in God knows no bounds. In Kabbalah, this corresponds to the super-conscious crown (the source of faith in the soul), which transcends the conscious powers of the soul, 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, “The goal of all knowledge is to realize that we know nothing.”
This realization was not a one-time accomplishment for Abraham, but a constant process by which he continually advanced from intellect to faith. He was always on the move and devoted his mind and knowledge to understanding Divinity, so much so that new horizons of knowledge opened up to him every day. What he knew of God one day was more than he knew the day before, and his new knowledge brought with it a new left that required him to move further to the right. He elevated himself from what today seemed to him to be faith until it was integrated into his mind and became a rational thought, that led him beyond it to a new level of faith. Abraham travelled “back and forth” from intellect to faith, to new intellect and new faith.
The Final Journey
Abraham’s final journey to Mt. Moriah reached the apex of faith, which took him to the extreme right. God commanded Abraham to take his beloved, long-awaited son―the actualization of His promise to Abraham to be “a great nation” and the embodiment of all his hope for the entire future―and to offer him up as a burnt sacrifice. Human intellect is incapable of resolving such a paradox! How could this commandment not stand in direct opposition to the Divine promise that “In Isaac will be called your seed”? How could it not contradict the educational policies that Abraham had taught mankind, which strictly opposed child-sacrifice? No logical explanation was available. But, where the light of logic ends, faith begins to glow. In Chassidut, it is explained that each of the trials that Abraham endured was a test of faith, but the Binding of Isaac tested his faith to the upper limit.
Inter-including Left within Right
Whereas Abraham represents the right and loving-kindness, his son Isaac represents the left, which corresponds to fear and judgment. By binding Isaac to the altar and preparing to offer him as a sacrifice, Abraham reached the definitive right. He completely discarded his intellect, triumphing over his “leftness,” and ascended the peak of pure faith. Yet, Kabbalah represents the Binding of Isaac not as an expression of the victory of right over left, but as the inter-inclusion of left within right. Abraham did not actually slaughter Isaac, God forbid, but only placed him upon the wood and bound him there. Thus, the Binding of Isaac by Abraham symbolizes the binding together of right and left.
By interpreting the Binding of Isaac in this way, we infuse new significance into Abraham’s accomplishment. Our usual perception is that in order to reach a destination, we must distance ourselves from our previous location. Every time Abraham travels “southwards,” to the “right,” he moves away from the “left.” With every additional step that he took in the direction of “faith,” he by necessity had to leave his intellect behind. However, although this was true at the earlier stages of Abraham’s spiritual development, at the Binding of Isaac, God revealed to him how to advance towards a goal without ever leaving his previous location.
Abraham progressed further and further to the right until he reached the climactic discovery that his son, Isaac who he had bound “upon the altar, above the wood,” was the epitome of the left. Only then did God reveal that the ultimate purpose is not that the right should slaughter the left and overcome it, rather, “Do not send your hand towards the youth!” The right should join together with the left until they arrive as one at their destination, “And the two of them went together.”
In terms of intellect and faith, not only should we constantly elevate our consciousness from intellect to faith, we must realize that the highest form of faith somehow includes our limiting, analytical intellect; the left is included within the right. The intellect that is included within pure faith at its highest level, toys with faith, delving ever deeper into its depths to reveal infinite secrets.” As the verse states, relating to the primordial Torah that preceded creation, “I was a nursling [אָמוֹן; from the same root as “faith” (אֶמוּנָה)] beside Him, and I was [His] delight every day, playing before Him at all times.” Indeed, in Kabbalistic terms, faith (the crown) is a “higher intellect” that is “hidden beyond any idea.”
At the end of this process we reveal that Isaac, the “left,” is higher than Abraham, the “right.” In fact, although we read how Abraham elevated Isaac to place him on the altar, no verse ever states that Isaac descended from there. This brings the sages to 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 his son’s soul root is higher than his own.
God is referred to as “the Fear of Isaac” (פַּחַד יִצְחָק) but this phrase also means, “Fear will laugh.” The revelation that the left is included within the right is a completely new innovation that brings indescribable joy and laughter to the world. It is because Isaac represents the attribute of judgment and fear that such great joy and playfulness emanate from him. This will be revealed in full in the future, when the Jewish people will say to Isaac in particular “You are our father.”
Indeed, in Kabbalah it is explained that Isaac is a futuristic-messianic figure: Isaac (יִצְחָק) “will laugh” and Mashiach (מָשִׁיחַ) “will rejoice” (יִשְׂמָח).
 Avot 5:3 as interpreted by Maimonides and Bartenura.
 Genesis 12:1.
 Bereishit Rabah 43: 3.
 In Hebrew, one interpretation of the word “south” (דָּרוֹם) is where the sun “lives at the height” (דָּר [בַּ]רוֹם). See Nachmanides, Exodus 26:18 etc.
 Genesis 15:15.
 Genesis 13:9. See also Bereishit Rabah 41:6, how Abraham chose the right under all circumstances.
 Isaiah 30:21.
 Psikta Zutrata, Shir Hashirim 4:8.
 Avot 1:12.
 See Shabbat 31a.
 See Beitzah 16a.
 Yevamot 14a.
 Eiruvin 13b.
 Hilchot Avodah Zarah 1:3.
 Bechinat Olam 13, 33; Keter Shem Tov 3.
 Pri Ha’aretz, Vayera; Derech Mitzvotecha 185b
 Proverbs 8:30.
 Genesis 31:42.
 Shabbat 89b.