Leaders usually claim that they act for the betterment of the populace. Often, however, self-interest clouds their perspective. How many are really looking for attention and power? The following is a brief introduction to this subject.
The Chasid Shoteh and the Drowning Woman (Sota 21b)
The Gemara gives a case of a “chasid shoteh” — a pious fool: A woman is drowning, and he is in a position to save her. However, he will have to look at her unclothed, and is concerned about forbidden thoughts; meanwhile, he loses the chance to save her. This, the Gemara concludes, is a “chasid shoteh” — a pious fool.
The later commentaries ask many questions. Why is he referred to as a pious fool? If he allowed her to die, this should be construed as wickedness. There is certainly no piety here!
First, we surmise that there are others to help, and there will not be any loss of life. So he is not considered wicked. But why is he pious, if his actions are foolish?
Pikuach Nefesh (Cases of Life and Death)
Generally, saving a life takes precedence over all mitzvos. However, there are three areas in which a person must give up his life rather than transgress: Murder, Forbidden Relations, and Idolatry. If so, regarding these three areas, life does not necessarily take precedence!
If he has deliberate intention to have pleasure while saving her, it may very well be that he is not allowed to save her if others are present — hers is a forbidden relationship. This, then, is the reason our friend was referred to as a “pious fool”: he was concerned that he’s acting in order to derive pleasure from the forbidden relationship. Perhaps this is a form of piety (i.e. his extra concern), but in regard to life and death, such piety may be folly. (See Mincha Chareiva, Sota 21b)
Rav Moshe Feinstein concludes that the question of forbidden relationships should not play a role in halacha here, assuming the intended purpose is solely to save a life. (Igros Moshe, Even Ha’ezer 1:56)
Rav Yerucham Levovitz writes:
Although it is difficult to refrain from forbidden thoughts, he has no choice but to act to save a life. Though he will be judged for those thoughts, he must do his part. However, this is where her life is dependent upon him. If there are others, though (for example, trained lifeguards ready to perform), he must weigh his motivation; if he cannot act with pure intent — the others should go. (Note: We are assuming that no time is lost, and the woman will not be endangered by having the others save her.)
Moshe Rebbenu and Purity of Thought
With this, explains Rav Levovitz, we get a small impression of Moshe Rebbenu’s thinking. At the Sneh (the Burning Bush), Moshe was asked to redeem the Jewish People from Egypt. Again and again, he refused; finally he said, “Send whomever You will send!” Why the refusal? Moshe Rebbenu desired mitzvos greatly, what could be greater than redeeming all of Klal Yisrael from captivity?
He was afraid that there might be a small appearance of impropriety, a trace amount of self-interest which could distort the mission. Even a tiny inclination for power or honor would taint everything. Since Moshe felt that Aharon was fit for the task, Moshe’s suspicions regarding his own motivation made Aharon a better choice.
(See Da’as Chochma Umusar, Part 2, Ma’amar 22)