Lance Armstrong’s Morality Play
Ultimately falsehood self-destructs.
Lance Armstrong’s confession is a shock to our humanity system. The seven- time winner of the prestigious Tour de France, and one of this era’s most admired athletes, has all along been using illegal Performance Enhancing Drugs in the most sophisticated doping scheme in sports history, all the while indignantly proclaiming his honesty and integrity.
How can a human being do such a thing? It was not so much the doping – bad enough – that wounded us; it was the ongoing, passionate declarations of aggrieved innocence that betrayed us and played us for fools.
It was a form of moral violence committed against millions of people who trusted him. Though he did not attack us with guns and bullets, it was traumatic nevertheless, for this was a spiritual assault on our ability to trust in other human beings. He gave new meaning to the concept of hypocrisy, and thus affronted our innate sense of truth and integrity.
A society cannot long exist without this sense of trust in one another, without some standards of truth. No amount of legislation can help against such onslaughts. Note well the words of the Sages that one of the three pillars on which the world exists in the pillar of emet, Truth (Avot I:18).
A violation like this forces us to ask ourselves: who are we really? Are we inherently evil, or are we angels? Jewish tradition says that we are an amalgam of both. We can climb as high as the heavens or we can sink lower than the beast. We can choose life and contentment for ourselves and for others, or we can choose misery and virtual death for ourselves and for those around us. This is what the Torah in Deut.30:19 means when it tells us that God places before us both life and death, and urges us to “choose life.”
There are certain bedrock elements of human life that we violate only at our peril — not as a punishment for misdeeds, but because they are built into the fabric of the universe. Just as a tall building with a faulty foundation will eventually cave in under its own weight, so also a life — or a society, or a nation — built on shoddy moral foundations will ultimately disintegrate. Truth and integrity are the bedrock elements without which life collapses. Falsehood bears within it the seeds of its own inevitable destruction. Deprived of the bedrock, disintegration is inescapable. This explains why the three-letter Hebrew word for truth, emet, is mentioned almost 150 times in the Bible, and why this word is inscribed on God’s seal (Talmud, Shabbat 55a). The disgraced lives of so many people in public life – climaxed now by Armstrong’s self-inflicted humiliation — are cautionary tales about living without the undergirding of truth.
Anatomy of a Lie
Armstrong is a one-man morality play, a study in the anatomy of a lie. All lies start out as babies. In this case, one can speculate that perhaps the first time he used PED was because he had recently recovered from his dread illness and needed some assistance. It worked its magic, so he did it again – and again and again. The baby lie grew up, matured, and developed into bolder falsehoods involving many other people. Then he had to cover up his lie which, given his intelligence and his clean reputation, was so easy to do that he kept doing it and kept re-inventing himself. Ultimately he surely began to believe that his deceitfulness and duplicity were the truth, and that those who challenged his lies with truth were themselves liars. He even sued in court and won cases against those who challenged his honesty.
Lying to others is one thing; the Armstrong lesson is that lying to one’s own self is much easier and much more insidious. In interpersonal relationships, in friendships, in marriages, in commerce, in social life, baby lies tend to mature and to envelope the liar in their own webs. This is why the Torah in Exodus 23:14 does not simply say, “Do not lie, “ but instead says, Midvar sheker tirchak – ”Distance yourself from falsehood,” warning us not only not to violate this sin, but to keep away from it as we would from a pestilence — whether against others or one’s own self.
Can Armstrong be forgiven and redeemed? The Talmud states: “Whoever transgresses and is embarrassed by it, all his sins are forgiven” (Berachot 12b). This is because to admit one’s sins is one of the most difficult things for a person to do. He confessed in public before millions of viewers — which is appropriate, having lied to millions of fans over the years. Nothing stands in the face of true repentance, and only time will tell if his repentance is genuine. One hopes that it is not a ploy, as some are suggesting, getting his penalties reduced in order to compete once again. Given his past performance – and “performance” is the precise word – one can be forgiven for being a bit skeptical , especially since his confession came only after there was overwhelming evidence against him..
L’affaire Armstrong underscores the comment of the Sages: sheker ein lah raglayim – “falsehood has no leg to stand on.” Note that the Hebrew word for falsehood, sheker, has a shin, a kof and a reish. In the normative Ashkenazic script, each of these three letters has only one leg, and thus cannot stand on its own. But in the word for truth, emet, each of its three letters aleph, mem, tof, has two solid legs. God is the God of Truth, Emet, the Torah is Torat Emet, a Torah of Truth, and neither can abide deviations from Truth. Though falsehood seems to fly high for a while, that is only temporary. Ultimately it self-destructs because by definition it is anti-God and has no leg to stand on.