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Spitzer & the Power of Temptation

Spitzer & the Power of Temptation

No one -- not even the righteous -- is free from temptation.


The news these days is not at all new. It centers on man's eternal struggle with temptation, and his occasional spectacular failings -- as exemplified by ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York.

The Talmudic sages in Sukkah 52a describe temptation as yetzer hara or the Evil Inclination. They suggest that to the righteous, who appreciate the seriousness of sin, temptation seems as mighty as a mountain, and therefore they struggle to overcome it. To the wicked, who discount the effects of sin, it seems as thin as a thread which can be easily overcome.

The point is that no one -- not even the righteous -- is free from temptation. This is what the Torah means in Genesis 7:21: "The inclination of man is evil from his youth." This is a warning shot, at the very beginning of history, across the bow of mankind: Watch yourself; be ever mindful of your negative tendencies to cheat, steal, hurt, to be corrupt, to engage in immoral behavior. The temptation to do wrong is built in to every human being. It is a powerful force, and no one is immune from it. And our task as human beings is to be aware of that tendency -- and to resist it.

Barati yetzer hara, God says in Talmud Kiddushin 30a: "I have created the Evil Inclination. But I have also created an antidote to it, and that is the Torah."

Living by the disciplines of the Torah, as well as studying it, can help overcome the Tempter. The Talmud tells us that the greater the person, the stronger is his evil inclination. And the greater is his glory when he succeeds in the struggle. The key is not to underestimate the power of the adversary.

We all sense that the fall of Spitzer is a morality tale of classical proportions. Here is a man who had everything going for him: a trajectory of political success, a straight-arrow Mr. Clean image of righteousness and rectitude, a paragon of virtue crusading against evil, a (sometimes) media darling offering a fresh breeze, a man who had broken up prostitution rings and rackets and who was the scourge of everything dishonest and immoral.

For all of his intimate knowledge of crime and its ways, however, he underestimated the power of temptation. For him it was a thin thread, not a mountain, and once he gave it entrée to his being, there was no way out. What it might do to his relationships, his family, his career, to himself, was all beside the point. Like a fly in a web of the spider, he was hopelessly enmeshed.

Why should a brilliant man behave in so singularly stupid and reckless a fashion? We need not enter the area of pop-psychology that is now springing up all around the Spitzer case. Jeremiah said it all in 17:9-10: "Obscure is the heart of man, and intricate; who can know it? Only I the Lord can probe the heart and know its depths."

We will never know what came over the governor to risk everything for some illicit adventures. But his deeds underscore the prescient comment of Hillel in Pirke Avot 2:5: "Do not trust yourself until the day of your death."

This holds true today as it did 2,000 years ago. That is, do not think that you can never succumb to the power of immorality. The Torah says it clearly in Genesis 4:7: "Sin crouches at the door." Once we come to believe that we are above such things, the crouching Tempter rises up and entraps us.

Gov. Spitzer did not invent or discover immorality. He is preceded by a centuries-old lineup of presidents, kings, prime ministers, and ordinary politicians It is beyond our ken as to why powerful men in particular fall victim to the weakness of the flesh. Hubris and pride and power are certainly major contributing factors.

If we want to improve the society around us, the place to begin is in the mirror.

By all accounts, humility is not one of the governor's strong traits. He has always been smarter than his peers, richer, and more accomplished. For him not to be completely humble is perhaps understandable. But it is in the nature of un-humble people to persuade themselves that, because they have achieved a certain status, nothing untoward can ever happen to them: they can do whatever they please and their deeds will not catch up with them. He, and untold powerful men before him, are living proof of the warnings of that wisest of all men, Solomon, in the book of Proverbs, that pride is the precursor of man's fall. Instead of surfing the Internet for illicit entertainment, Spitzer would have done better to surf the Book of Proverbs.

A great sage once said: "When I was young, I wanted to improve the entire world; as I grew older, I wanted to improve my country; later, I wanted to improve my village, and still later, my family. But now that I am very old, I would be most happy if I could only improve my own self."

To put it another way: If we want to improve the society around us, the place to begin is in the mirror. Of the several lessons we can glean from the Spitzer morality tale, one salient fact emerges from them all. Our material technology may be cutting edge, but our spiritual wherewithal has not moved one iota since ancient times. We are conquering outer space, but are nowhere near conquering inner space. Worse, we are hardly aware that we possess inner space.

This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

March 17, 2008

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 21

(21) Michael U, July 1, 2008 9:45 PM

Going to Prostitutes is a Sin

Marat, I dont know what scriptures you've been reading BUT... Torah most certainly portrays having sex outside of marriage as a sin.

(20) Marat Denenberg, March 24, 2008 8:14 PM


I am no fan of Mr. Spitzer, but I wouldn't go as far at to say his behavior was immoral. Criminal? Yes. Unethical? Yes. How as it immmoral, from a Jewish perspective? I don't recall reading anything about a prohibition on hiring a whore. I do recall numerous instances in Scripture where a whore was hired and it wasn't portrayed as an abomination.

(19) Myra, March 22, 2008 12:14 AM

Thank you Rabbi...

Thank you Rabbi for reminding us that sin is always at the door. Thank you for reminding us of the sin of pride. We must not think that we are any better or more righteous than Mr. Spitzer. We must feed ourselves on the Torah and trust in the Holy One of Israel to maintain our righteousness for surely we can not. Thank you for your insightful and truth filled thoughts.

(18) Marlene Josephs, March 20, 2008 1:41 PM

Rabbi Feldman, it is obvious that you are trying to be generuous in your assessment of this situation, but I assume that you didn't state certain facts because you didn't know them. I have not cared for Mr. Spitzer for a long time and was outraged when he won the governor's seat. He has long been a vicious and vindictive personality, calling himself a "bulldozer". It is one thing have to take someone down because you are doing your job as a prosecutor, it is, however, another thing to relish destroying lives and businesses. His smugness, I'm afraid, comes from his upbringing by his Austrian Jewish parents. (I looked this up on Wikipedia, by the way). His father became a multi-millionaire many years ago and raised his two sons and daughter in the lap of luxury in Riverdale, NY where they attended the Horace Mann School...maybe the best private school in NYC. He and his brother did not have bar mitzvahs and so, in my opinion, he was taught to replace Hashem with money. This taught him to be arrogant and nasty, thinking that he was better than others and above the law. His wife, Silda Wall, is from Chapel Hill, North Carolina and was raised a Southern Baptist. I'm not sure that I feel sorry for her, although I did at the beginning, because he has been doing this for many years and yet she advised him not to resign his office. They met at Harvard Law while they were students there, went their separate ways and came back together several years later and married. Their common goal was "giving back" and helping others. I think that their original goal got muddied along the way with he had already from dear ole DAD!!! And so, I appreciate that you want to give him the benefit of the doubt, as we are directed to do by Torah, but emet is emet and that can never be changed. The only that he can do is real t'shuvah now...but I bet we'll have to wait a long, long time for that to occur!

(17) Todd, March 20, 2008 1:03 PM

How the mighty fall

Compare Spitzer's fall to the story of Joseph. Joseph refused to commit iniquity with his boss's wife. He refused to prostitute himself, turning down a kings ransom in silver. He simply refused to do wrong. For this, he spent twelve years in prison rather than compromise his morality. Ultimately, his fortunes are reversed as he is recognized for his morality and wisdom and is given power over all of Egypt's wealth, second only to Pharoh. He reigned long, with a reputation for strong, wise and just leadership.

In contrast, Spitzer rose quickly to supreme power, by wielding his power in a relentless, indiscriminate fashion, removing enemies from his path with official investigations and unofficial threats. He fell equally quickly when his self-righteousness was betrayed as hypocrisy and his unscrupulous bullying left him friendless, even in his own party.

Such reversals are no accident. Throughout our history we've learned that righteousness wins out, and depravity is punished. And things can change overnight. This is of course one of the themes of Purim, presently upon us, as the targeted Jew Mordechai who refused to bow down to the idolater Haman, has his fortunes reversed and rises to take Haman's place as viceroy to the king; as Haman and his line are relegated to the ash heap of history.

Spitzer's fall, like the rise of Joseph and Mordechai, represents the unseen Hand of justice which can always be relied upon.

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