In an interview that will air today, Lance Armstrong finally admits what many people already assume to be true: that he used drugs and other illegal means to bolster his performance in winning seven Tour De France cycling titles and countless other competitions. The confession has pushed to the fore thorny ethical questions about how to view a larger than life figure whose sports notoriety is intertwined with his victory over testicular cancer and his unprecedented role in creating the Livestrong foundation that funds and inspires so many who battle and survive cancer.
Put simply, the conundrum is how much it matters that someone who has done such real good for real people is now revealed to have built much of his achievement and image on a foundation of deception, cheating and lies. In a world that moves so fluidly between virtual reality and reality, what is the difference as long as something good comes out of it?
In tackling this question I find myself thinking about a different story that has suddenly arisen the world of sports and the social media. Notre Dame standout linebacker Manti Te'o, a Heisman candidate and projected first round draft pick, was lauded this year not only for his play on the field but for his perseverance in the face of the tragic loss within days of both his beloved grandmother and his girlfriend. Now it has been revealed that the girlfriend, who had been said to have been first in a car accident and then diagnosed with aggressive leukemia, actually never existed. While Te'o claims to be a victim of a cruel online hoax, many others believe that he had to be involved in the deception either for undetermined personal reasons or to boost his candidacy for the Heisman with a compelling and heartbreaking story. Here, unlike Lance Armstrong, no one is questioning the validity of the accomplishments that earned Te'o his accolades and brought Notre Dame to the National Championship game. What has been exposed is the story behind the man and, in the eyes of many, the type of person he had been assumed to be.
An incident in the Torah reading for this Shabbat underscores the importance of what is true, what is false and what is beyond our ability to know. In telling the Israelites and Egyptians about the slaying of the firstborn that G*d said would occur "at midnight," Moses instead says that the plague will occur "around midnight." One tradition says that Moses was wary lest the Egyptians err in determining the exact time of midnight and see the discrepancy as reason to call Moses a liar. Hinted at in this interpretation is a recognition by Moses that there is a limit to how exactly human beings can know something with certainty and a respect for what can only be fully grasped by G*d. By saying "around midnight" Moses teaches us how important it is to recognize both the limits of our knowledge and the responsibility to strive to speak truth.
It is tempting to say that when so many aspects of our lives are virtual and when we understand that so much is in the eye of the beholder, that there is no longer any great significance to what is true and what is not. Yes, there are things we understand to be true to the best evidence we have and there are things we take on faith, that we will to be true in order to elevate our lives and provide a foundation of meaning. However, too many people have been inspired and too many people have been devastated by things that are real to not take issue with a life built on lies. We owe it to those who achieve real victories and those who suffer real heartbreak to do our best to live not only strong, but true.