Passion’s poison and purity

Times of Israel writer Sarah Tuttle-Singer offered a July 4th posting earlier this week.  “On this day, 42 years ago, Jews were in mortal danger in a hostage nightmare in Entebbe, Uganda, and for the first time in our history, we had an army that could go in and save us in a far-flung place.  I will never take that for granted.”

Whether appreciating the Entebbe rescue or America’s Independence Day foundations,, history drops in for a visit every July 4th.  America’s founders believed deeply in reason.  It served as a cooling agent to quiet the passion of the mob.  They feared the sway of the mob as much as the coercion of the monarchy.  Alas, their faith in reason has not always been vindicated, given a murderous 20th century.  What about their alarm over the aftereffects of passion?

Tucked into this week’s portion of Torah is a lesson concerning the perils of unchecked passion.  We learn it in an improbable place – a census.  Following the lewd idolatry at Baal Peor suddenly stoped thanks to Pinchas’ zeal, a plague takes the lives of twenty-four thousand who stand guilty of the defilement.  The census’ most noteworthy detail concerns what happens to the population of the tribe of Shimon.  They decline by more than 60% since the last count.  What causes Shimon to go from the third largest tribe to the smallest?  Their central role in the Baal Peor idolatry.  Their tribal leader is impaled by Pinchas for fornicating on the altar with a Midianite leader (Num. 25:14).  The misplaced passion of the tribe of Shimon leads to their tribal demise. 

The tribe of Levi is also known for their passion.  By contrast, it finds expression in the aftermath of the Torah’s only other idolatrous conflagration.  In the wake of the Golden Calf sin, the tribe of Levi acts to defend the sacredness of the Sinai setting (Ex. 32: 27-28).  Unlike the infidelity associated with Shimon’s passion, fierce fidelity becomes the way of the descendants of Levi. 

“Passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason” wrote James Madison in the Federalist Papers.  But our aim should not only be to dilute or dampen passion.  We should also aim to channel it toward solemn ends.  When passion is blind to the humanity of others, it abets evil.  When it relieves suffering as it once did at Entebbe, it can be noble. 

May we refine what is best in reason and in passion, to help make crooked the paths of the wicked while straightening the paths of the righteous. 

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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