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Shemini - “Keeping Passion in Check”
By Rabbi Doniel Frank, Director, M.A.P. Seminars
We often reference the notion that “nothing stands in the way of desire” to inspire our young and dispassionate generation to recognize and utilize the power that lies within them. And when we succeed, we stay with the same statement but stress its implied warning that “nothing stands in the way of desire.” Once we are on fire, we are very prone to breaking boundaries. In Talmudic terminology, “passion perverts the normal way of doing things.”
Nadav and Avihu brought an unwanted offering in order to “add love to love.” Their inner fire compelled them to bring a foreign fire. The lesson: Be careful with passion because it has little regard for limits.
To be sure, breaking boundaries can be good and necessary, but not always. Sometimes we can do things in our passion that we would and should not, had we been able to be more thoughtful.
We know this to be true in relationships. Sometimes we love so much that we forget about respect – whether parents to children, or spouses to one another. And to relate appropriately, we must remember that the more passionate we are, the more careful we must be to observe and maintain boundaries.
This is the lesson R’ Shimon Schwab draws from Shemini. He then tells the story of the time R’ Chaim of Volozhin went to his rebbe, the Vilna Gaon, to request permission to open a yeshiva in the mold of the yeshivas of old. This was his vision, his passion. The Gaon’s response was lukewarm, leaving R’ Chaim feeling down and despondent. In a subsequent encounter, the Vilna Gaon inquired of R’ Chaim about the yeshiva that he had planned to open. R’ Chaim, surprised at the question, admitted to having dropped his plans based on the response he had received when he first asked permission.
To which the Vilna Gaon explained: “When you first came to me, I had concerns about the source of your inspiration. However, now that I see how prepared you were to drop your dream based on your rebbe’s disapproval, I know with certainty that it is indeed a holy fire.” He gave him a blessing for success, and the rest is history.
Self-assessment is difficult, especially when we are passionate. When we light up, we lose a great dose of objectivity. What’s the source of our fire? How far should we go? We need to consult. But we also have to be careful with whom we consult. When R’ Chaim of Volozhin had an ambitious idea, he went to the Vilna Gaon. It is a safe bet to say, from what we know of him and from his impact, that the Vilna Gaon was big – not just in knowledge, but in the ability to see the big picture, to perceive big things, to take challenges and risks, and to know when to break the status quo. There are many educated people, but not many visionaries. And there are many global thinkers who fail to appreciate the realities on the ground. Finding the one, the gadol, who can balance them both is the challenge and the mandate of passionate people.