“Did you hear what so-and-so did? I tell you, it’s a scandal!”

I must confess, it is extremely disturbing when people, community leaders I know and respect, make serious errors of judgment in their personal behavior. And it hurts. Deeply.

So I am somewhat mollified when I read this week that 10 of the 12 spies chosen by Moses for a reconnaissance mission of the Promised Land returned with less-than-favorable reports and actively discouraged the nation from following G‑d’s plan to make Canaan the Land of Israel. Their actions were directly responsible for a disastrous delay with 40 years of wandering in the wilderness before the Jewish People would finally enter the Promised Land after that generation had entirely died out.1

How can it be, wonder many of the Biblical commentators, that a group of righteous men, leaders of their respective tribes, hand-picked by Moses himself, could have gone so astray?

And while there are a wide variety of answers—practical, philosophical, and even mystical—at the end of the day there is no escaping the bottom-line, simple truth that absolutely no one is immune from error. No individual, no matter how righteous, is beyond temptation. We are all subject to faults and flaws in the business of decision-making, whether those choices are moral, financial, or ideological. It is simply part of being human, a fragile condition permeated by doubts, dilemmas, subjectivity, compulsions and cravings. I am reminded of the fellow who boasted that he had conquered all his vices, except for one. “Which one?” he was asked. “Temptation.”

If a minyan of men, personally chosen by Moses, could have gone off the deep end as they did, why should we be surprised when others do the same?

And we are reminded of other deeply righteous men who made grievous personal errors in judgment. “Believe not in yourself until the day of your death,” says the Talmud, “for Yochanan Kohen Gadol officiated as High Priest for 80 years and in the end, he became a heretic.”2 When one thinks of the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies every Yom Kippur, it is completely unimaginable how such a thing could happen.

And then there is the shocking story of Rav Amram the Pious, a wise and respected sage. A group of Jewish women who had been kidnapped and then freed from captivity were brought to the city of Naharda'ah, in Babylonia. To keep them safe, they were taken to the attic of Rav Amram, and the ladder was taken away so that no men could climb up to bother them. One of the women was exceptionally beautiful. When Rav Amram noticed her, he took the ladder—which was so heavy that ordinarily it would take 10 men to move it—and picked it up all by himself so that he could climb up. Only when he was halfway up the ladder, did he come to his senses, still the burning urge within him, and go back down.3

And the Talmud there goes on to tell stories with some of the most famous sages who were subjected to similar temptations and barely survived their own moral challenges. If these giants of the spirit were vulnerable and susceptible to sin, who are we to expect ourselves to be morally invincible?

That’s why we have the laws of yichud,4 a set of regulations designed as precautionary measures to prevent us from getting into any morally compromised positions in the first place. Basically, a man and woman are forbidden to be alone, in any private, secluded setting. Either there must be other people around, or it should be in a public space where nothing untoward is likely to occur.

How well I remember the exact words of a fellow in our community who, unfortunately, got involved with a married woman. When he came to speak to me about his difficult and embarrassing situation, he said, “What should I tell you, Rabbi, it just happened.” His apologetic justification was that he hadn’t planned the affair, but they were both working late at the office after everyone had gone home, and “it just happened.”

We are all susceptible, we are all prone to our hormones getting the better of us and our hearts conquering our brains. Rationally, we know it is not right, but emotionally we throw caution to the wind, and sadly, lives are often ruined in the process.

“There are no trustworthy guardians when it comes to forbidden relationships,” teaches the Talmud.5 And, “Even the most pious of the pious should not be appointed as a custodian over [preventing] forbidden relationships.”6

Rightly do we pray every morning: “Do not bring us into the grip of error, sin, temptation or shame.”7

The spies were mortal. So are we all. Hopefully, with hard work, faithfulness, prayer, and a little help from Above, we will keep the faith and maintain our integrity.