A few weeks ago, a prominent Florida rabbi was caught propositioning an illicit sexual act from another adult male in a public place. The rabbi allegedly invited an undercover police officer into a bathroom stall at Sears, inferred that he was seeking a sexual liaison, and exposed himself to the officer. The incident was good for a cheap laugh, for self-proliferating email distribution, and for feeding the public's insatiable appetite for schadenfreude--taking delight in another's undoing.

Perhaps in this open and unrelenting society, comedy was in order. Winding up as a one-liner in a Leno monologue or a Letterman Top Ten list has become part of the ritual of public purgatory.

But let me give this pants-down scene a different perspective: Despite the rabbi's willful misdeed, this situation was a tragedy, not a Seinfeld sketch. A once-respected leader capitulated to misbegotten lust. Who knows the demons at work in his soul? Who knows the conflicts that tormented his conscience? All we do really know is that he is already suffering all the grief he deserved and then some. He is likely to have forfeited his job, his marriage, his esteem, his clerical authority, and his ability to walk down the street without facing murmured scorn or derision.

Perhaps he deserves all that. But, after society has meted out its punishments, who will be there to give a modicum of solace and encouragement to a hurting, isolated, failed man who gave in to impulses that bespeak tortured unwholeness, not criminality? Who will comfort him, show him some understanding, and restore his sense of self-worth?

Having mercy on a person who has suffered undeservedly is, sadly, a rare quality in our contentious, calloused society. Yet, anyone who has been there knows that everyone needs someone by his side, someone who may loathe the sin yet acknowledge the humanity of the sinner.

Everyone needs someone? Does this include even Hitler and child murderers and cold-blooded killers? I have no rational answer, but Elie Wiesel once provided a lesson. I was privileged to have coffee with Wiesel at the time that Ivan ("The Terrible") Demjanjuk was on trial. Knowing his staunch opposition to capital punishment, I asked Wiesel if his opposition extended to Demjanjuk and other war criminals like him. "No," he said. "That's different." He did not elaborate, and there was a note of finality to his voice. It said, "This should not require further explanation."

I guess there is a point of malignant depravity that moves beyond any claim to compassion or even human validation. We must rely on some higher instinct with which we are blessed to know where to draw the line. This, however, I do know: Soliciting an illicit sexual act with an otherwise consenting adult is not mass murder. Likewise 99.9 percent of the sins that feed schadenfreude-hungry audiences a steady diet of scandal, titillating innuendo, lush gossip, comedic scripts and unjustified intimations of our own moral superiority.

We may have gotten a good laugh or some good dinner-table conversation out of a rabbi pathetically getting caught with his pants down. Next week another deserving candidate will be slimed. But, who among us will see tragedy in another's downfall? Who among us will be there to wipe their tears and ease their burden?

If the public has a right to the comedic dimension of human downfall and moral frailty, then we should also see tragedy as tragedy. Imputing only comedy to a person's undoing is the greatest tragedy of all.

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