My Own Vineyard I Have Not Tended

Governor Eliot Spitzer resigned a couple days ago. We all keep marvelling that the man who used to prosecute prostitution and corruption by following the money trail was caught using the same techniques that had served him so well as Attorney General. What was he thinking??!! Judge Sol Wachtler immediately came to mind; his disgrace turned out to be a symptom of a mental illness that no one realized he had, including himself. I don’t know why I think this, but I doubt that the same will turn out to be true of Eliot Spitzer. In his case, perhaps the fatal flaw was emotional rather than mental. “Hubris” is the word I’ve seen most often. A belief in his own high-and-mightiness, perhaps.

It’s absolutely a tragedy. And a shock. But it’s hardly new in the history of the world. His prosecutorial zeal might even have come from an attempt to repudiate/repair (as in “make reparations for”) his secret behavior. Can you imagine how he might have felt, listening to the revelations after insisting that those involved in wrong-doing not only plead guilty but present a detailed, public account of what they did? Horrified? Secretly giddy? Imagining himself there?

A line from Song of Songs comes to mind: “My mother’s sons were angry with me, they made me keeper of the vineyards; but my own vineyard I have not tended.” (Song of Songs 1:6) Today, this verse sounds to me like it’s speaking of someone who serves the public good but neglects their own behavior in the same area. A parable: To what is the matter similar? To a man who insisted on responsibility and ethical behavior from others, but neglected to hold himself to the same high standard … and was caught in the exact same way as he caught others who had neglected to tend their own vineyards.

That is still what boggles the mind. It’s not like Eliot Spitzer was the chief dairy inspector of the state, or something like that; if he had been chief dairy inspector, what he’d be facing right now would be charges that his own backyard dairy used sub-standard or even dangerous milk-handling practices, plus he bootlegged a little milk on the side. No, this is the man who had used the exact same kinds of records that he created through his dealings — financial, audio, and electronic — to track people who were doing exactly what he has been doing, and then expose and charge and implicate and bring them down. As he has been exposed and brought down. What could he have been thinking?? Could he have been said to have been thinking, in any real sense of the word?!

בְּנֵי אִמִּי נִחֲרוּ-בִי, שָׂמֻנִי נֹטֵרָה אֶת-הַכְּרָמִים–כַּרְמִי שֶׁלִּי, לֹא נָטָרְתִּי

The other text that comes to mind is this one: “How the mighty have fallen!” David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan in the first chapter of the Second Book of Kings, verse 19. And it’s appropriate.

Saul was a shy and modest young man who became a promising young king, but began to believe in his own judgment even over divine instructions. (See I Samuel ch. 13, Saul’s first mistake, and ch. 15, his biggest mistake, in fighting the Amalekites. Note that it’s this story which sets up the story of Purim; Haman is called the “Agagite,” after the last king of Amalek.) He remained king for quite some time afterward, but his judgment was never as good again; eventually he was full of paranoia, particularly toward David, who loved him and served him. (Continue reading through chapters 16, especially the end18-1922 and 24. It’s a great story, though I wish I had a more modern Jewish translation to send you to.)

In the end, both Saul and his son Jonathan, beloved of David, die in battle. David becomes king. (That’s King David, not David Paterson!) And David laments for his friend and for his former lord and mentor: “How the mighty have fallen!”

For me, there’s some comfort in finding ancient verses that call to mind similar tragedies. I remember I felt similarly after 9/11. We are not the first generation to witness such an astounding fall from grace. This is not the first time that a man full of promise has come to a ruinous end because of his own behavior. And it is neither the first nor the last time that a person will labor diligently for the public good, but neglect to prune and tend and guard his own vineyard as well.


The T-U put together this very dignified collection of responses. The one that strikes me the most is Rep. Steve Israel saying that one decision that Spitzer made correctly was asking David Paterson to be Lieutenant Governor. I read in the paper this morning that Paterson’s father was also a state senator, and the first non-white secretary of state of New York, and the first black vice-chair of the national Democratic party. So Paterson comes from a political family. One may assume that he knows what to do and how to do it — I mean, under this kind of pressure. He spoke at one of the lobby days I attended a few years ago; I was impressed by him then and continue to be.

Excellent compilation of editorials from around the state from yesterday, the day after the revelations but before the resignation.