The Power of 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 Succa 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.

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 appeared in the Jerusalem Post, March 17.

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1 Response

  1. Garnel Ironheart says:

    > 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.

    I think that’s quite a selective view of the man. To others he was arrogant, disdainful of anyone who disagreed with him and not above using extremely questionable legal tactics to destroy those he wished to. He was only a media darling because he went after right wing capitalists who are natural enemies of the left wing New York Media.

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