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Governing Ourselves

by Rabbi Avi Shafran

The “steamroller,” we all know, was steamrolled. Although those whom Eliot Spitzer focused on flattening were New York State wrongdoers, he ended up being mangled by misdeeds of his own. And thereby became an object of derision and ridicule – the single greatest generator of schadenfreude since the Wicked Witch’s demise evoked the Munchkins’ delight.

From a Jewish perspective, should we be jumping on the badmouth bandwagon?

One rabbi I know feels we should. Speaking publicly, he called the former governor an “evil man,” noting the irony of how his fall from a high peak of honor and power to ignominy came about through activity of a sort he had himself prosecuted others for doing, and stopping just short (I think) of equating him with the Purim villain Haman.

Succumbing to desires can indeed yield evil things. However, as Bruriah, the renowned wife of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Meir, taught us, it is important sometimes to distinguish between sinner and sin (Tractate Brachos, 10a). Most of us succumb, at least on occasion, to illicit personal desires – if only the desire to gossip, to react with anger, to waste time. As I told my wife and some family members, if I weren’t such a “baal taava” – a hedonist – I would be a good 20 pounds lighter.

My wife (whose cooking and baking are part of the problem) responded that, well, there are succumbed-to desires and there are succumbed-to desires; they are not all the same. And, of course, she is right (as usual). And moral violations, in particular, do indeed entail evil.

But there is some relativity here, as there is in all crimes of passion. Who can really know just what it must be like to be a well-heeled, famous, ambitious man in a position of power, trotting the globe (or at least the coast) collecting kudos – enriched with currency but bereft of Jewish religious values like the ideal the rabbis of the Talmud call “the fear of sin”?

Those same rabbis, interestingly, in Tractate Berachos, 32a, use the parable of a man who pampered his son, “hung a coin purse on his neck, and stationed him at the entrance of a brothel.”

“What,” they asked, “can the son do so as not to sin?” Or, as we might put it: “Well, what exactly do you expect?”

To be sure, Mr. Spitzer is no boy; he is a grown man and was a public official. Much more was rightfully expected of him. After all, we must all learn to control, not be controlled by, our desires – to, so to speak, govern ourselves.

Still and all, though, the Talmud elsewhere exhorts us not “to judge another until one has stood in his place.” And so, if there is any lesson to be mined from the tawdry tale of Mr. Spitzer’s fall from grace, I think it may lie less in his sin than in the reaction to it. “In the downfall of your enemy,” King Solomon admonishes, “do not rejoice” (Proverbs, 24:17). Even someone who has earned one’s enmity does not deserve to be gloated over when he has fallen. A recognition of the irony of the former governor’s political demise is certainly proper. And feelings of disappointment, even of disgust, are not out of place. But the derisive glee that arose and crashed like a tidal wave, is not so very far from a sin itself.

I find the act of a second rabbi I know to be more in line with the Jewish religious tradition. This rabbi took the time to pen Mr. Spitzer a short personal note. It conveyed the sentiment that great people, even Biblical figures, had sinned, some even in ways that, at least in some way, were a failure of moral fortitude. Those people, the writer added, were in no way barred from repentance, and the greatest among them indeed came, as a result of their falls, to change their lives for the better.

Reprinted with permission from Am Echad Resources

 

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