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Eliot Spitzer personified success. He had it all: health, family, wealth, career, fame – everything a person can ever dream of and hope for. Then it all unraveled. A man at the zenith of life plummeted to the nadir of existence.
Spitzer was a Harvard-trained legal mastermind, a renowned prosecutor and former attorney general who knew the ins and outs of criminal intent, behavior and subterfuge – and yet, incredibly, he couldn’t mastermind his own crime. Ultimately, he committed the same egregious mistakes as the criminals he pretentiously indicted.
Two issues bother any observer of this sad debacle.
First, Spitzer was by no means naïve. Did he not anticipate the personal and legal consequences of such behavior? Did he honestly think he would escape recrimination?
Second, knowing first hand how criminals get caught, why didn’t he attempt to cover his tracks? Why wasn’t he more surreptitious? Why didn’t he take preventive measures to preserve his career and reputation?
Perhaps to answer these questions we have to probe the essence of our humanity. Why do we make mistakes? Why do we get emotionally enraged? Why do we say things and do things we live to regret? What does it mean to live as a human being?
Being human means striking the right balance between logic and passion. Like animals, we humans are pushed by our fears and pulled by our desires. Unlike animals, however, we have the unique human faculty of being able to manage our aversions and cravings. This is what really defines us as human beings.
Most people follow three universal, cardinal truths critical to the survival of humanity. It is deviance from these principles that causes people to stumble, relationships to implode, and nations to collapse. The three universal values are:
Reason should usually supersede emotion.
Placing reason before emotion prevents jealousy, suspicion, and phobia from causing bedlam and crippling relationships. Of course, there are exceptions. When a heartrending drama unfolds, it would be preposterous to “reason” whether crying would be appropriate.
Restraint should generally overpower instinct.
When restraint doesn’t overpower instinct, then infatuation, desire, and reckless ambition cause untold havoc and destruction in relationships. A notable exception to this notion is the Fight or Flight response, the body’s inborn response that prepares it to react to harm or threat.
Long-term integrity must always surpass short-term pleasure.
Long-term integrity should never be exchanged for short-term pleasure. Momentary gratification and accruement – whether from an unhealthy diet, an illicit relationship, or unethical financial dealings – directly cause disease, broken families, financial ruin, and untold spiritual impairment.
Judaism teaches us that the head should govern the heart. The head representing reason and foresight, the heart representing impulse and ephemeral gain. This is precisely why Judaism instructs the Jew to wear tefillin (phylacteries). Tefillin connect the head, the seat of logic and rational thought, with the heart, the conduit of emotion and instinct, so that a person never succumbs to passion alone.
Whether you feel anger, resentment, and jealousy brewing in your heart or temptation, lust, and attraction fomenting in your blood, it is pivotal to engage in an exercise to allow yourself objectivity. Ask yourself: Why am I having this feeling? What is motivating me? Am I still in control? Are my base instincts subverting my rational tendencies? Is my better judgment yielding to shortsightedness?
Sin waits at the door. It can be all consuming, or it can be conquered. Sin means capitulation to a damaging emotion, impulse, instinct, or gratification. Sin has tentacles and it traps. Just one lapse can cause a person to get more and more entangled.
What happens when one becomes ensnared by sin? Justification, validation, and rationalization become the norm.
Where did Eliot Spitzer go wrong? His desire for the limelight robbed him of reason, and so reason was no longer part of his equation. A lack of reason is automatically accompanied by an absence of foresight. It then becomes virtually impossible for the person – no matter how smart or credentialed – to ponder and anticipate consequences and repercussion. Instead of contrition, a delusional sense of invincibility takes over, and then things spiral out of control and it gets too late.
It happened to Abimelech, the king of Gerar, when he kidnapped the matriarch Sarah. Abraham says of Abimelech, “For I have seen there is no fear of God in this land, for they would kill me on the account of my wife.” The Malbim interprets this as meaning that no matter how influential and intelligent one is, absent the fear of heaven one can potentially commit the most heinous crimes.
It happened to Pharaoh of Egypt who lost an entire kingdom. His notorious indomitableness resulted from a loss of reason, which impeded his senses and prudence.
It’s happened countless times throughout history. Sadly, it is bound to happen again because sin waits at the door.
About the Author: Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer is a popular lecturer and educator and the author of "Search Judaism: Judaism's Answers to a Changing World" (Targum, 2009), available at SearchJudaism.com. He is also director of the Think and Care Tank (thinkandcare.org), an organization dedicated to spreading Jewish values and innovative Jewish programming.
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