In politics we are all to aware of the ongoing struggles and battles between the "Right" and the "Left". In religion we also often hear about being over to the "right" or a little more to the "left". But in Jewish thought, the terms "right" and "left" take on a slightly different meaning.
Our Sages teach us that the right side and the left side represent two different extremes in our personalities. The right side is the side of expansion, the energy source of traits such as love, kindness, joy and the will to give. The left side represents the side of constriction and is the source of traits such as self-control, discipline, judgment and negation of the self. All the classic works on character refinement emphasize the importance of balancing these two traits.
In Parshat Vayera, Avraham is challenged with what seems to be the ultimate of his many tests. God asks him to bring his son Yizchak as a sacrifice. This test challenged everything Avraham had ever believed and taught to others about God. In a world where child sacrifice was common pagan practice, Avraham preached about the evils of such forms of worship and stood for a compassionate God of kindness who would never want such a thing.
Though we discover at the end of the story that this really was not God’s desire at all, that it was all a test, the commentaries look for a deeper understanding of the message we are supposed to take away from the story. Did God just confront Avraham with the most difficult challenge possible, or was there some deeper message being conveyed?
In Jewish thought Avraham is considered the embodiment of the right side, the side of expansion. Yitzchak, on the other hand, is the embodiment of the left side, the side of constriction. The very fact that we seldom hear the voice of Yitzchak in the Torah alludes to his “strong-silent-type” personality. His name Yitzchak, which means laughter, describes his ability to laugh at the world as he turns his back on physical pleasures, which he views as futile.
God tells Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak, and then stops him to generate in his heart the ability to dominate the trait of Yitzchak while ultimately acknowledging that it needs to be in the world.
The message to Avraham and Yitzchak, the message to all of us, is that we all need to have some of Yitzchak in us. And although the word “judgmental” has become synonymous with a bad character trait, sometimes a person needs to draw that hard line between what they believe is right and wrong. The world continues to adopt more and more the culture of “anything goes,” and much of that creeps into Jewish views as well. The Yitzchak within needs to remind us that we need to hold on strong to our ability to see boundaries.
However, Yitzchak is only complete after he is ready to be sacrificed, dominated by his father Avraham, the embodiment of love and kindness. The trait of Yitzchak is channeled properly only when it is rooted in love. As a primary trait it can be destructive, turning us into overly judgmental, angry, rigid people. But when it is secondary to the dominant right side, it allows us to refine our power to love and give in the proper frequency and set meaningful boundaries.