A catalyst is a necessary ingredient which creates, or at least facilitates, a reaction but which might not even be detected in the final product. In many ways, Yitzchak represents this essential function. Of the אבות, Avot, Patriarchs, he is by far the most hidden, the most silent. Characterized as an עולה, Olah, which translates either as a burnt offering, recalling his being bound as a sacrifice by his father, or, even more literally, as something that goes up, he is the focus, perhaps even mechanism, of his father, Avraham’s, incorporation of יראה, Yirah, fear/awe into his personality.
Indeed, in our mystical tradition Avraham represents חסד, Chesed, unbounded love and energy, while Yitzchak represents גבורה/דין/יראה, Gevurah/Din/Yirah, strength/judgement/awe. Neither of them, however, was yet able to father the nation, i.e. the twelve tribes. That quality didn’t evolve until Yaakov, the projection of Avraham’s Chesed though the lens of Yitzchak’s Gevurah, who represents תפארת, Tiferet, beauty/balance comes on the scene.
Unbridled passion, as much as we desire to experience it, is quick to burn out and usually leaves very little that’s memorable in its wake. Likewise, excessive dogmatic strictness, while certainly unpleasant to experience, usually creates nothing by itself and certainly leaves no positive legacy. Complexity theory discusses the very narrow bandwidth between the limits of entropy and enthalpy, strangling structure and chaos, in which life is able to thrive.
Among the many lessons we can draw from Yitzchak, we can begin to understand and appreciate the function of a selfless lens. Without a focus, the great light of Chesed might easily become trivialized to mere fireworks. If, however, it’s focused and directed (by Gevura), the potential for beauty, Tiferet, is finally created, even if that lens itself is barely, if at all, present in this final product (which, according to our tradition is the central Sefira, energy center, which then powers the entire system).
This theme is mirrored throughout the telling of Yitzchak’s story. Not only is he the most silent of the Avot, the daily prayer that he instituted, Mincha, for the afternoon, is significantly shorter than Avraham’s, Shacharit/morning, which is the longest, or Ma’ariv, the evening prayer founded by Yaakov.
Gevurah is also the energy of צמצום, Tzimtzum, the self-contraction, as it were of God, creating a space for Creation to exist. One of the results of this Tzimtzum is that by withdrawing, God’s presence becomes harder to find in our world. Much like Yitzchak, whose function and contribution is critical, but whose presence and personality seems most withdrawn.
One lesson to draw from this is that our real contributions to the world won’t necessarily carry our name nor create our fame. Nonetheless, discovering ourselves and our unique potentials in this world, and then going out to fulfill them, is not only critical, but each of us is also the unique agent, the unique catalyst/provider for that function.
We learn (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5) that whoever saves even one soul has actually sustained the entire universe. That includes “saving” oneself, i.e. enabling ourselves to fulfill critical function that the entire universe requires and that only we, in our unique selves, can perform. Almost all of us will, almost all the time, do that in relative anonymity, but that doesn’t diminish our contribution.