I have been thinking about Lance Armstrong. I know I should be spending more time thinking about Israel’s upcoming elections and gun control laws, but I remain riveted, or perhaps distracted, by the spectacle of yesterday’s hero seeking to regain the past glory that we now learn was most certainly stolen. This evening we will be able to watch him confess to Oprah. Such is the contemporary paradigm. Public confessions have become the substitute for righting wrongs.
But public tears, however heartfelt (and I remain skeptical about his motivations), are only the beginning of the repairing of wrongs. According to Moses Maimonides there is only one true measure of complete repentance and that is for a person to be in the exact same situation, tempted by the exact same sin, but this time to make a different choice and ultimately the right decision. Rarely do we have the opportunity to test our repentance. Rarely are we afforded the chance to see if we have indeed changed. Most choose to avoid being tested.
Nevertheless, Judaism insists that repentance must be about deeds, about changing behaviors. Confession is but the first step. The more difficult work for Lance, and for us as well, is what follows. Will he seek to mend the wrongs done to his teammates? How will he repair the harm done to professional cycling, or even more important to the Livestrong Foundation and cancer survivors?
Of course one could argue, it is only cycling, or baseball, or sports for that matter and we already devote too much time to following these games and their stars. Still in a culture that venerates winners we would do well to remember that cycling with friends or throwing a baseball with a son or daughter should be reward enough. Rather than spending our hard earned money in efforts to ride farther and faster or so that our sons and daughters might gain a scholarship to college or the dream of dreams, drafted into the pros, we might be better off slowing down and enjoying the ride and the company, especially when it is with our children.
Confession is only the first step. Repair and change are the necessary steps. Yet how do we change our behavior if never again given the opportunity to repent. A nineteenth century Hasidic master writes:
There are certain sins of which we are told, “The person is not given the opportunity to repent.” Nevertheless, if the person really engages in serious soul-searching, realizing the abyss which stretches in front of him, and nevertheless repents, God will take pity on him and accept his repentance. His humbleness and his subservience pave the way for his repentance, at a time when the regular path to repentance has been barred to him. However, if “you refuse to humble yourself before Me” (Exodus 10:3) there is no way that you can possibly find an alternate path to repentance, and you will remain in a state of “not being given the opportunity to repent.”
God may indeed accept the wrenching confession we will soon witness. It will take much longer to rectify matters with friends and family, competitors and teammates. I have always believed that it is the people with whom we surround ourselves who matter most. I prefer struggling to right matters with those people rather devoting myself to beseeching God. Only when turning to God helps us turn toward others do I find strength in such devotions.
That is what Lance forgot. That is what Pharaoh never understood.
The Torah declares: “So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me?” (Exodus 10:3)