Pharaoh never gets it. Even hail, locusts and darkness fail to move him to let the Israelites leave Egypt. It takes a tenth plague, the death of the firstborn males—his own son included—to prompt Pharaoh to recognize his wrongdoing. Which brings me to Lance Armstrong.
How interesting that Armstrong’s long-awaited “confession” to Oprah Winfrey regarding performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) came during the week in which we read the Torah portion Bo (Come). For years, Armstrong denied doping accusations. The stronger the evidence grew, the greater his denials—and attacks against his accusers. According to media reports, he allegedly bribed cycling agencies and threatened teammates and others who spoke out.
For his part, Pharaoh eventually seems to get the point and relents to a greater power. He releases all the Israelites along with their herds and flocks to worship God in the wilderness.
Perhaps Lance Armstrong finally recognized the scope of his wrongdoing—he flat-out cheated then lied. Perhaps he could no longer live with his conscience. I won’t deny him that possibility. Or perhaps he can no longer tolerate his lifetime ban from cycling and triathlon, and believes a confession enough for reinstatement—although officials want him to admit his guilt under oath before considering his case. True, there’s a difference between being king of an empire and king of the cycling world. Regardless, Armstrong may share a great deal with Pharaoh.
As we learn, Pharaoh’s change of heart leaves much to be desired. Even before Moses returns to Egypt, God says, “Yet I know that the king of Egypt will let you go only because of a greater might” (Exod. 3:19). God gets Pharaoh. In Egypt, God informs Moses, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 7:3). Is Pharaoh fated to do evil? The biblical text reveals that Pharaoh hardened his own heart after each of the first five plagues. Only after the sixth plague did God harden Pharaoh’s heart. According to Maimonides and others, Pharaoh ultimately forfeited his right to repent.
And after that dreadful tenth plague? Next week’s portion (BeShellach—In Sending) shows Pharaoh undergoing yet another change of heart. He harnesses his chariot and leads six hundred wheeled terrors in pursuit of his former slaves. The Egyptian army follows the Israelites right into the Reed Sea—and drowns.
So which stage along the continuum does Lance Armstrong occupy? Has he genuinely repented? Or does he fear a cascade of legal actions—from monetary to potential prison time? Many people in the spotlight get caught violating trust and the law. Mea culpas are easy to mouth but not always believable.
The lure of success and power can warp anyone’s judgment. We can choose to start down the slippery slope and take our chances. Or we can draw a line based on moral and ethical principles.
If we undertake the former—if we harm others of our own volition—and are discovered, the least we can do is not only acknowledge our guilt but also accept the consequences.
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