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Lance Armstrong’s Morality Play

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.

January 22, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 37

(26) Imelda Yochevet Uziel Pearce, February 12, 2013 8:03 PM

Your writing style is inspirational

Usually, when I've written an article, I struggle for a good ending sentence. Your ending sums it up and inspires me to try writing again. I also cherish your insight about the Hebrew letters, and how falsehood has no leg to stand on but Emet has two solid legs. Elohim is amazing in the wisdom he gave us with his language.

(25) Michal Selber, January 29, 2013 3:26 PM

Our society breeds such lies

Good article. What Lance Armstrong did was very wrong. That being said, I believe we also have to address the issue in the context of all the lies that daily go on in our society. Bill Clinton, Anthony Wiener, the Frenchman who accosted the room maid, etc, times a thousand. And what about the politicians and their lies and coverups, now taking place. Our society, not only Lance Armstrong, is mired in lies. In fact, I saw him quoted as saying that he used the drugs in order to level the playing field, that so many of his competitors were doing it, he thought he needed to as well. Does that excuse him? Of course not. But it muddies the water for society in general. I remember the Watergate hearings. Actually the thing that stands out most clearly in my mind is that some of those who were on the judging side regarding Watergate were THEMSELVES later investigated and convicted for their own crimes. What do we do about it? Well, for starters, we don't make Bill Clinton the huge star of our society that he now is. We don't allow Anthony Weiner to run again for office, as he is now doing. We don't allow sports heroes/rockstars who then behave like lowlifes to continue getting salaries that are hundreds of times the average hardworking person does. And we hold our politicians accountable for telling the truth, no matter how high their office. Until our heroes are people who overcome odds to do the right thing, we'll just continue to speak out about against one liar or lowlife at a time. In the "money-fame-power is everything" society in which we live no better can be expected.

(24) HannahNana, January 27, 2013 8:52 PM

Right On Rabbi !

I will take these words to ponder. I never liked him b/c of how he mistreated his wife. I wasn't in awe of him but I have been shaken by the elaborate, yet seemingly effortless hypocrisy and betrayal. Lies begin as babies. I like that remark.( Vice and Virtue both). I truly immerse myself in the etomology in this lesson. MORE! Shabbat 55a or Shmot 23:7 ?

(23) Marvin K, January 27, 2013 1:37 AM


Lance Armstrong is the Bernie Madoff of competition biking. Excomunication from biking is appropriate. If his so-called foundation suffers, so be it. After all, Al Capone fed soup lines during the Great Depression. That didn't make him less of a murdering gangster.

(22) Greg, January 26, 2013 12:10 AM

Will we ask forgiveness from those whose lives he destroyed?

Simply admitting sin, being embarassed and asking society for forgiveness cannot be enough. He threaten to destroy those who accused him and did so in several cases. Will he be able to look those people in the eyes and humble himself before them? Will he compensate them for what he has done?

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