Governing Ourselves

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 Torah perspective, should we be jumping on the badmouth bandwagon?

One rabbi I know feels we should. 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 Haman.

Succumbing to desires can indeed yield evil things. However, as Rabbi Meir’s wife Bruriah, taught us, it is important sometimes to distinguish between sinner and sin (Brachos, 10a). Most of us succumb, at least on occasion, to illicit personal desires – if only the desire to tell or listen to loshon hora, 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 and any awareness of the idea of “yir’as cheit”, “fear of sin”?

Those same rabbis, interestingly, in 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 Gemara 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,” Shlomo Hamelech admonishes, “do not rejoice” (Mishlei, 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 teshuva, and the greatest among them indeed came, as a result of their falls, to change their lives for the better.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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5 comments to Governing Ourselves

  • Anonymous

    Spitzer is a Jew, and as such, we should feel sorry about the chinuch he was never given. But I still cannot help but feel even more sorry for his family. His wife’s life has been wrecked and his 3 teenage daughters must go to school and suffer the stares, and probably the taunts about their father. True, I will never know what it is like to be in a position of power, but is not something wrong when a man can do what he wants without so much as a thought as to what it means for his beloved family?

  • Anonymous 1

    I want to suggest a perspective which I have not seen noted anywere.

    Perhaps the reason the former Governor fought so valiantly against the Zonah (Kedaishahs)industry was because he resented their very existence. He probably believed (and rightly so), had this industry not existed, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to commit such evil acts. This is probably what motivated him to “steamroll” the Z’nus industry.

    I will open up and admit to you one of my own shortcomings. I am embarrassed to admit (hence the name “Anonymous 1″) that at times, I have seen Pritzus in public and did not look away. This is clearly a violation of the Mitzvah “Do not stray after your heart and your eyes”. While this emboldens me to speak out strongly about the importance of Tznius, I can’t escape the fact that I am the one ultimately responsible for my Aveira. Never-the-less, if I had the power to uproot Pritzus from the Rishus Harabim, the TV, movies & the internet, I would do so with a passion.

    Does this make me a hypocrite?

    I will let you, the reader, decide, although I fully realize that ultimately, Hashem will make the final decision.

    May we all be Mikabel and Mikayeim to perform Teshuva Mayahavah this Purim Season. Purim Sameach!

  • LOberstein

    You are right as ususual. Our Christian countrymen would say “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. All too often people who are paragons of virtue in the eyes of the community are found to have broken the law or done something that brings dishonor on themselves and the community. We have to be careful to avoid self righteousnes .
    One of the issues facing chareidi journalism is that the censorship is such that we find it hard to deal openly with members of the community who violate the law. We don’t print a word and many make the assumption that we condone illegality, “as long as it is for a good cause” or because the cost of living a frum lifestyle is so high that “cutting corners” with the law is ok. Often, we out of towners are called naive and foolish because we don’t go along with shtik . Is it because of loshon hora or because it is so endemic that what can we say.

  • R Tzohar

    “After all, we must all learn to control, not be controlled by, our desires – to, so to speak, govern ourselves.”

    This is precisely the point. The sooner it becomes understood that the temptation has to be overcome by each and every person on their own, that the individual must be take responsibility for their own action the healthier Torah-true society will be. That means educating bochurim rather than banning women. The sooner it becomes legitimate to be a modest woman at the front of the bus (or anywhere else) and illegitimate to be a prutzah anywhere and the difference is clear, the healthier our society will be.

  • L Oberstein

    “Never-the-less, if I had the power to uproot Pritzus from the Rishus Harabim, the TV, movies & the internet, I would do so with a passion”.
    No…NO…No..! If you have issues that need to be resolved, don’t do so at the public’s expense. Seek your own counsel. I don’t want to live in Taliban Afganistan . There must be a balance between individual autonomy and societal needs . I won’t live in Mullah controlled Iran and some day the young people there will rise up. G-d Bless America, this is where we orthodox Jews have thrived. In this country we can go to college, choose our livlihood, vacation where we want, and raise our families as we choose. In this society, davka (specifically), orthodoxy has flourished in a far healthier and normal way than elsewhere.