Passion is vital but must be tempered

BY RABBI JOSHUA S. TAUB

Remember the first time you kissed a person you really loved? Not necessarily your first kiss, but the kiss that made you forget all of the others?

We want to feel passion. We want people with passion around us. Passionate folks are totally committed to the cause; they are unafraid of resistance; they are clear in their principles and values. Passion is good, to a point.

Passion is spiritual fire, and fire is both a blessing and a challenge. Feeling that fire in our bellies or that fire in our bones can motivate us to do things we would never consider if we thought about it for too long. In this week’s parasha we meet such an individual in the person of Pinchas, son of Elazar, grandson of Aaron. Like the passionate fire of blessing, Pinchas saves the day; he saves the Israelite people. However the passion of Pinchas comes at a price.

The Israelites had descended in to an orgy of idolatry and wonton sex having been seduced by the women of the Moab. God lets loose a plague that is killing thousands. God’s anger is communicated to Moses who is instructed to gather the elders of the community together and “impale them toward the sun” so that God might inflict punishment. In a moment of moral clarity, Pinchas bypasses the bureaucratic red tape and impales one of the tribal leaders, along with his Moabite consort, with a spear killing them both. This brings an end to the plague and an end to the chaos.

Pinchas the passionate one is now the hero, but with bloodstains on his hands and on his tunic, do we still want him on our team? Pinchas’ passion and moral clarity once inspired us; now his passion and his zeal frighten us. God does not reward Pinchas’ act; God instead blesses Pinchas with containment and control. Pinchas enters into a “covenant of peace” with God and a “covenant of everlasting priesthood” to provide internal, external and eternal checks and balances that will allow the fire to continue burning in Pinchas’ bones and prevent that fire from burning anyone else around him.

It is fitting that the haftarah for this week is a chapter from the Elijah narrative. Elijah was a passionate prophet filled with love and zeal for God and God’s law; so much so that the fire in Elijah’s bones caused him to castigate and ridicule the Israelites for their seeming lack thereof. Alone and distraught and hiding in a cave, the passionate prophet of zeal was being consumed by his own fire, and pleaded with God that his life might end. God responded not with fire, but with a “still small voice;” bringing peace to the prophet’s soul and allowing Elijah to carry on.

We see passionate zeal run amuck on a daily basis in our world, and it frightens us. We experience the raging fires of passion and zeal in our own hearts and sometimes that frightens us as well. Nevertheless, we should never be frightened into passionate inaction or passionate indifference.

Consider this; if you cannot hear the still small voice speaking to you, your passion may be turned up a little too high. If the still small voice is all you hear, your passion might be turned down a little too low.

Rabbi Joshua Taub of Temple Emanuel prepared this week’s Torah Portion.

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