Breaking the Cycle

Dvar Torah for Parashat Bo  (Exodus 10:1 – 13:16)

(given at Temple Israel, Duluth on Friday evening 1/18/13)

This week’s Torah portion, Bo, features the last three of the ten plagues.  Just as in last week’s parasha, we read about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, and we wonder about what that means for us who ascribe to a faith tradition which emphasizes that we have free will. 

However, though God had told Moses in Exodus 7:3    וַאֲנִי אַקְשֶׁה, אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה   (“I will harden Pharaoh’s heart”), God doesn’t actually start doing so until the 6th plague, whereas for the first 5 plagues the Torah portrays Pharaoh as hardening his own heart.  The 12th century Spanish Jewish commentator Nachmanides explains:  “When God warns one on three occasions and one does not turn from one’s ways, God closes the door of repentance on that person in order to punish that person for his or her sin.  Such was the case with Pharaoh.”

Viewed metaphorically, we might understand this to mean that we do indeed have free will to act virtuously or sinfully.  However, if we act too immorally, for too long, it becomes a locked-in pattern of behavior that becomes harder and harder to break.  As it says in Pirke Avot, the rabbinic era compendium of ethical teachings:   “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah va'verah goreret averah...”/ “One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, but one sin leads to another sin…” (Pirke Avot 4:2).  

Those teachings come to mind this week as we follow the news of Oprah Winfrey’s televised interview with Lance Armstrong, the first part of which was broadcast last night.   

Armstrong had denied for years the various allegations leveled at him concerning use of banned performance enhancing drugs during his cycling career.  He still was proclaiming his innocence last summer, when the United States Anti-Doping agency stripped him of his seven Tour de France wins, and banned him from professional cycling.  However, this week, in the wake of ever increasing evidence of his misdeeds, he changed his story.

“Mitzvah goreret mitzvah va'verah goreret averah...”/ “One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, but one sin leads to another sin…” (Pirke Avot 4:2).   

Winfrey asks: “For 13 years you didn't just deny it, you brazenly and defiantly denied everything you just admitted just now. So why now admit it? “

Armstrong responds: "That is the best question. It's the most logical question. I don't know that I have a great answer. I will start my answer by saying that this is too late. It's too late for probably most people, and that's my fault. I viewed this situation as one big lie that I repeated a lot of times, and as you said, it wasn't as if I just said no and I moved off it."

Later Winfrey asks how he viewed his own actions:

OW: Did you feel in any way that you were cheating? You did not feel you were cheating taking banned drugs?

LA: "At the time, no. I kept hearing I'm a drug cheat, I'm a cheat, I'm a cheater. I went in and just looked up the definition of cheat and the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don't have. I didn't view it that way. I viewed it as leveling the playing field."


I’m well aware, and I do try to take to heart the admonition, which we find elsewhere in Pirke Avot, אל תדון את חברך עד שתגיע למקומו / “Don’t judge your fellow until you have arrived in his place” (Pirke Avot 2:5), or, as it is sometimes idiomatically rendered, “Don’t judge another until you have stood in their shoes.”

My sister Robin is a serious cyclist and triathlete.  Last summer I posted on her facebook wall a link to a N.Y.Times article about the latest in the Lance Armstrong saga, and I asked her what she and her cycling buddies thought about it.  She said (and some her friends chimed in in agreement) that she would rather focus on Armstrong’s heroic fight against testicular cancer that preceded his Tour de France races, and on the millions he had raised for cancer research through the “Livestrong” charity.

No doubt the story will continue to develop over the coming days and weeks.

And various pundits and members of the public, and the people directly impacted by Armstrong’s actions, will come to their own conclusions about these latest developments.

Is Armstrong’s repentance genuine? 

As the medieval commentator Sforno said concerning God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart:  “Had Pharaoh sincerely wanted to repent, nothing would have prevented it.”  And maybe that’s the case now for Lance Armstrong. 

None of us are in those big leagues of the sports world, but just like a champion athlete who over and over again faces the choice of whether or not to cheat, or an ancient Pharaoh who over and over again faces the choice of whether or not to oppress others, we face our own moral choices each day.

Psalm 95, the first of the Kabbalat Shabbat psalms in our Friday night liturgy challenges us:הַיּוֹם, אִם-בְּקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ. / hayom, im bekolo tishma’u/ “O, if you would only hear God’s voice this day.” (Ps. 95:7) 

What is that voice telling us?  Whenever we are faced with a moral decision, big or small, that voice of conscience is indeed there within us “im bekolo tishma’u” --- if only we would hear it. 

Inspired and challenged by the age old words of our liturgy, our times of prayer each day (and especially during the unrushed hours of Shabbat), afford us the opportunity to go deep within ourselves to find that voice.

May we indeed be graced with the fortitude to follow it in all of our moral choices, not only on this Shabbat but throughout all the days of our lives.

Shabbat shalom.

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5773/2013


Posted on January 24, 2013 .