Friday, January 18, 2013

The Meaning of Lance Armstrong

OPRAH WINFREY'S INTERVIEW WITH Lance Armstrong has come and gone, revealing to the world the open secret that he used a variety of steroids on his way to unprecedented success at the Tour de France. After years of vehement denials, Armstrong is finally coming clean. What created this monster?

In this week’s Parsha, the Jewish people are given the Mitzvah of the Karban Pesach, the sacrifice they performed the night before leaving Egypt. This Karban was a focal point of the entire Seder and we still incorporate aspects of the Karban Pesach in our Seder today.

A prerequisite for a male to participate in the Karban Pesach is having had a Bris Milah. This is a rare circumstance of the fulfillment of one Mitzvah becoming a pre-condition to perform a second Mitzvah. Why would there be such a requirement?

The Karban Pesach served as an opportunity for the Jewish people to publicly declare their faith in Hashem. While they had no responsibilities before the first nine plagues were carried out, in order to be saved from the 10th, the plague of the firstborn, they needed to perform the Karban Pesach and paint its blood on their doorpost. On the precipice of salvation, they needed to be ready and willing to publicly show their commitment to Hashem. They needed to become active participants.

Lance Armstrong - Doping

By requiring a Bris, Hashem was saying that the public declaration of faith was only meaningful if it was accompanied by a private declaration of faith. The Bris Milah was a private, and painful, declaration that showed a person’s true colors. The Karban Pesach would be a sham if the public declaration was allowed without the true personal commitment the Bris Milah demonstrated.

We live in a world that celebrates success and ambition. Lance Armstrong became a national hero because he demonstrated an unusual capacity to push himself to succeed. He won seven consecutive races, even after recovering from cancer. A person that driven to succeed will naturally be tempted to do whatever it takes to win. Just look at baseball. How surprised should we be that a large number of high profile players used steroids when there was no steroid testing in place? When dealing with highly ambitious and successful people, the temptation to win at all costs is enormous.

As a society, we need to ask ourselves what we truly value. Do we value success or character? At a graduation, the valedictorian gets up to speak, not the student with the best character. Our winners get lionized as “immortals” while second place finishers become historical footnotes. We’ll forgive our cheaters, be it Bill Belichick or Alex Rodriguez, as long as they win. If they lose? Then they become useless to us, and are labeled losers and cheaters.

The Karban Pesach teaches us that the public, demonstrative acts of faith are only meaningful with the sincere, private ones. By rethinking who we honor and who we consider a success, we can truly make that lesson a reality. We need to make clear that our public winners are only valuable to us if accompanied by private character. Now grab some popcorn and enjoy Oprah’s interview.

Rabbi Josh Strulowitz is the rabbi of the West Side Institutional Synagogue in NYC. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.