This week, we are going to talk about someone who was larger than life. Someone who was at the top of his field. His competitors couldn’t touch him. He was invincible. Anyone who dared challenge him would be trampled underfoot.
And then, even when indications began to accumulate that he was not who he had claimed to be all this time, he continued to persist.
When some of the members of his team began to question his invincibility, he responded with threats, stubbornly holding out.
Finally, when the evidence could be ignored no longer, he backed down, admitting that he was not the person whom he had claimed to be.
But was the concession sincere? Did he mean it? Has he really come down from his high podium out of genuine contrition? Or, is it merely an attempt to shake off the feeding frenzy that has been attacking from all sides? Is he a changed man, or will he revert to his old ways?
Any guesses who we are talking about?
Actually, it’s two different men: Lance Armstrong and Pharaoh. Two people who were lured by the promise of fame and wealth. Of prestige. Of knowing that there is nobody else in your field who can touch you.
It turns out that these are extremely powerful forces. They can lead a person to set aside ethics, break the law, lie, and even abandon friends and family.
Of course, we have a role in all of this as well, just as the Egyptian people had a role in Pharaoh’s stubbornness. Lance Armstrong would not have achieved what he did without us: the fans, and the consumers.
His story of overcoming cancer was inspiring to millions. His charity did so much good. His unimaginable comeback in leading the US Postal cycling team to win seven consecutive French Open titles was simply astounding.
As it turns out, Lance Armstrong was using performance enhancing drugs for years. Through bribery and lying, he avoided being caught by drug testers. He threatened anyone who confronted him, including friends and teammates. He lied under oath.
Until recently, it all paid off. Lance Armstrong brought incredible prestige and money to the sport of cycling. He made a hundred million dollars or more in product endorsements and prize money. And he became one of the most popular sports figures in the world.
Never mind that it is so unbelievably unlikely that a person could accomplish what he accomplished without using performance enhancing drugs. Come on. Did we really think he could do something so impossibly unlikely on his own? Apparently we did. Or we wanted to. We wanted it all to be true. We love our heroes, so we are willing to overlook the ugliness.
But we also love to see our heroes come crashing down. We get a sick kind of pleasure when we witness the fall of someone who has achieved greatness to a level at which we can only dream. That’s why Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah this week has drawn so much attention.
“He wasn’t that good after all,” we can now tell ourselves. But are we any better off now that Lance has fallen from his podium? No.
I’ll leave it to others who follow these things more closely to do the close analysis. I hope that Armstrong’s extremely public admission of guilt is the beginning of a long process of teshuvah, of repentance. While public opinion will pass its own judgment, only time will tell if he is ready to become a new man. And only God and Lance will know if he has truly changed his neshamah, his soul.
Pharaoh shares much with Lance. Granted, there is a big difference between being an athlete and being the King of the most powerful empire in the world. The stakes, in terms of human lives, are much greater in Pharaoh’s case.
But Pharaoh, also, is addicted to power, prestige, and wealth. In his world, he is no mere human. He is the living embodiment of the sun god, and thus cannot concede to any challenge, whether that challenge comes from Moses, or from the Lord of the Universe.
Pharaoh’s pursuit of wealth and power and his single-minded desire to retain it, leads him to trample on the lives of the Israelites. He has ordered their enslavement, decreed the murder of their male children, increased their workload, and refused to let up even a little. Why? Greed and power. These slaves built him the garrison cities of Pithom and Rameses. His drive for wealth has eclipsed any smidgen of an ethical sensibility or human compassion.
But it is not all on Pharaoh. He believes what everybody is saying about him: that he is the sun god; that he is all-powerful; and that he deserves it. Pharaoh’s “fans,” so to speak, have reinforced all of the unethical behaviors of which he is guilty. And they have benefited too, with a slave underclass to make their lives a bit cushier.
Years of sycophancy have made Pharaoh hard-hearted towards Moses’ cry of “Let me people go.”
So God brings ten plagues of evidence to demonstrate that Pharaoh is not divine. Towards the end, his people are convinced. They abandon him, and urge their king to let the Israelites leave. The Egyptians have finally begun to appreciate their slaves as human beings, and especially Moses, the Prophet of the true God of the Universe. As this morning’s Torah portion tells us, “The Lord disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people.”*1*
God’s plan, from the beginning of the Book of Exodus, has been to demonstrate to Pharaoh that no human being is that great. But the message is not only directed at him. God is clear that all of Egyptian society is complicit in the oppression of the Israelites. The sin is not only Pharaoh’s, and the punishment is not alone for him to bear. The lesson that God has set out to impart is directed as much to the Egyptian people as it is to Pharaoh. And through them, to the rest of the world.
What is that lesson?
Ultimately, it is a lesson of humility. As humans, we need to know our limits. We are not gods. We are not superior to one another. We are not immune to norms of basic human morality. And none of us are above the laws of a just society.
This message is timeless. For there will always be those who do not see themselves as being subject to typical norms of human behavior. Whether we are talking about politicians, business people, entertainers, or professional athletes.
But we also can’t just sit back and take silent pride in the moral failings of public figures.
We need to remember that we are an integral part of this system. Without a public to care about their lives, there would be no famous people. There is a part of me that feels bad for those celebrities whose egos and faults are reinforced and strengthened by the public’s attention. I cannot imagine how difficult it wold be to live ethically, to be one’s best self, under such scrutiny.
I hope that Lance Armstrong is sincere. I wish him the strength to face the consequences of his actions, and to correct the harm that he has caused.
And I hope that we can take a sober look at ourselves, and acknowledge how we contribute to a society that pushes people to allow greed and the quest for money or power to inflate the ego and suppress good behavior.