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Actualizing Our Hidden Potential

From the "Noam Elimelech," Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk.

Actualizing Our Hidden Potential
And Yitzchak said: Here are the fire and the trees, but where is the lamb for an offering?
(Bereishis 22:7)
We can analyze the text of this verse with a question: Why did Yitzchak say “the fire and the trees”? Was he referring to a specific fire or particular trees? [In the Hebrew verse, these words are preceded with the prefix hei, which connotes a specific item — “the fire and the trees.”] Why not call them just “fire and trees”?
The addition of the letter hei seems to imply that these were specially chosen fire and trees. But it seems strange that Avraham would have chopped these trees and carried them a three-day journey all the way from his home. Why did he do so? Were there no other trees to be found along the way during the whole journey? Even if we say that he was worried that perhaps he really might not find trees during his trip, why did he chop them up and ready them at home? He could have prepared them later by the place where he would offer a sacrifice.
We can also ask: Why did Yitzchak ask Avraham, “Where is the lamb for an offering?” Why not ask simply, “Where is an offering?”
The idea that we learn here is that the Creator has sanctified us through the performance of His commandments. Hashem has no need for us to fulfill His mitzvos, but it is pleasing to Him that He has spoken and His will is done. Hashem’s wish is that man should have a desire to wholeheartedly fulfill His divine will.
Thus we find that Hashem is after the intentions of man’s heart. If man intends to carry out the will of Hashem and fulfill the commandments with a whole and complete heart, it is considered as if he immediately did the actual deeds since his heart was completely devoted to the matter. Still, man must perform and execute the commandments; it is impossible for man to truly have only a total and complete intention and desire to serve Hashem. *Even if you think you have a total and complete desire to do the mitzvos, do not believe in yourself until you have actually done them, * because this is the nature of the physical body of man — to prevent him from actualizing his potential wholeheartedly.
Thus the Sages taught, “If you thought to do a mitzvah and were prevented from doing it through no fault of your own, it is considered as if it were done” (Berachos 6a). Hashem examines the heart, analyzes the kidneys, and knows one’s deep inner thoughts, that one has an honest, sincere desire to fulfill the divine will. This is why He considers it as if one did the deed [if one truly intended to do the mitzvah].
[That is, just as Hashem sees our insides, He knows and understands our innermost desires and intentions, and we are transparent to Him.]
A flesh-and-blood king who tests his subjects to see if they will perform his commandments waits only to see actual results. If his will is done, he does not test the heart of his servants to see if their intentions are true; he evaluates only their actions and deeds, but not their thoughts. Hashem, however, searches the tracts and expanses of the stomach, examines the kidneys and the heart, and knows the innermost thoughts of man, whether they are in fact honest and true. Therefore, if you could not perform the mitzvah through no fault of your own but desired to do so, He considers it as if the mitzvah was done. * The opposite is also true: If man does mitzvos in action and deed alone without the full intention of the heart, and without complete awe and love, they do not fly upwards.
[Rav Chaim of Chernowitz, in his responsa concerning the performance of mitzvos with the fullest intent, writes, quoting Tikunei Zohar (10, p. 25b): “Every mitzvah that is not performed with awe and love of the Master does not fly upwards.” He teaches that awe and love are like two wings: “They are like the wings of a bird. A bird uses them to soar up through the air to the heavens. However, were he to lack wings, or if they should break, he cannot fly upwards. So, too, the commandments that are done without love and fear — it is as if they lack wings, and how then should they fly and rise upwards?”]
The nature of man is that when he desires to perform a mitzvah, his initial thoughts are full of great yearning, each man according to his own personal level. A complete Tzaddik, on his level of righteousness, also burns with desire and yearning, with the fire of Hashem to perform mitzvos completely and wholeheartedly.
This was the intention of our forefather Avraham. When Hashem commanded him, “Take your one and only firstborn son whom you love, Yitzchak, and go for yourself to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him as a burnt offering for Me on one of the mountains I will designate” (Bereishis 22:2), Avraham’s heart burned like a fiery coal to perform the divine will. But if there is any disruption before a person can actually perform a commandment, he loses the initiative and the longing that he had when the thought first entered his mind. This is what Avraham feared, that he would lose his yearning and the fire burning within him would cease, that the three-day journey would interrupt these powerful emotions. Therefore he went and chopped wood right away, so that his intense feelings would be actualized into immediate action before they dissipated.
This also answers our question as to why Yitzchak called it “the fire.” He was referring to the burning fire that the righteous have in their desire to serve Hashem. “These trees prove that you have this fiery passion,” he was indicating, “since you immediately began chopping them to actualize your potential thoughts into actions, as if you were prepared to bring the offering that very instant.” This is the reason Yitzchak called them “the trees” using the definitive article hei. Then he posed the question “Where is the lamb?” — why then do you need to offer me? A lamb should suffice.
[In other words, after chopping the wood, Hashem now knew that Avraham’s intentions were pure, so why did he need to sacrifice his son?]
Avraham answered: “Elokim will see to the lamb, my son,” meaning to say that Hashem would see their true intentions. Once you have also contributed to the mitzvah — thereby actualizing your own potential through offering yourself as a sacrifice — then Hashem will see your own true intentions.
[This is why, even though Yitzchak was not actually burnt on the altar, the Talmud says that “Yitzchak’s ashes are lying on the altar and when Hashem gazes upon them He acts mercifully toward the Jewish people” (Yerushalmi, Taanis 2:8; Tanchuma 23). Since Yitzchak actualized his potential by physically placing himself on the altar ready to be sacrificed, his deeds were considered as if the sacrifice itself was performed. Once the potential has been actualized through action, the thoughts of the mind and the beliefs of the heart are revealed. They can then influence and bring benefit to this world, the World of Action.]