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The Tale Of Two Armstrongs In Elul

(L-R) Lance Armstrong and Neil Armstrong

(L-R) Lance Armstrong and Neil Armstrong

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Two major news stories involving two famous men named Armstrong occurred within days of each other recently. Was it random happenstance? Or was there hashgacha involved?

We know that nothing happens outside Hashem’s realm and power. But did Hashem have a specific reason for these two events occurring together when they did?

Of course, we can’t claim to know the specifics of how Hashem operates the world, but something tells me there must be a message for us to uncover from the two men named Armstrong.

Lance Armstrong is a hero to millions of people, especially to those battling cancer. While on the rise in a cycling career, he was diagnosed at age 25 with a cancer that metastasized to his brain and lungs. His cancer treatments included surgery and extensive chemotherapy, and his prognosis was initially very poor. He was told he had less than a forty percent chance to live. But he not only survived, he went on to become a world class cyclist and win the most prestigious international cycling race, the Tour de France, for an unprecedented seven consecutive years.

But something happened to make him less of a hero in the eyes of many. After years of rumors and investigations, he decided to stop fighting charges that he used illegal steroids and hormones. (He still maintains his innocence despite the allegations of those who claim to have witnessed otherwise, though he is no longer battling them in order to clear his name.)

On the other hand there is Neil Armstrong, the famous astronaut and the first man to walk on the moon, who died at the age of 82. He coined perhaps the most famous secular quote of the 20th century upon taking that first step on the moon in 1969, saying, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

While Neil Armstrong could have taken advantage of his fame, as other astronauts of his era did, he shied away from the limelight. He simply did not want any financial or material gain to come from his work for his country and its space program. After retiring from NASA he went on to live a very quiet life teaching at a small college in Ohio.

Lance Armstrong. Neil Armstrong. Both become major news stories within days of each other for very different reasons. Both become major news stories in Elul.

What does the name Armstrong connote? A strong arm. Lehavdil thousands of havdalos, the name Armstrong brings to mind that the Ribbono shel Olam is described in Egypt as having a Yad HaChazakah, a Strong Hand or Arm. In Parshas Ki Savo (26:8), the pasuk says that Hashem took us out of Egypt with a Yad HaChazakah. We mention this pasuk in the Hagaddah and we say there this Strong Arm refers to the plague of dever, the death of the animals of the Egyptians. The Malbim explains that only with regards to dever do we find the Torah describing that Yad Hashem struck the Egyptian flock. For no other plague is the term “the Hand of Hashem” used. This indicates that dever was somehow the greatest of all the plagues. In fact, the Malbim says that dever existed in every plague and encompassed all of the Ten Plagues. Without going into the details of how that was the case, we derive from this that the term Yad HaChazakah relating to Hashem indicates great judgment and consequence.

Is it any wonder, then, that we find the word Armstrong in the news in Elul, with the Day of Judgment right around the corner? Indeed, the Yad HaChazakah is coming and we must prepare.

And how do we prepare? We must learn the lesson of Lance Armstrong and the allegations against him. We may be heroes to many people who look up to us for our various spiritual accomplishments. But unless we do teshuvah, whatever we do in private that is inappropriate can and will come back to haunt us when the Yad HaChazakah chooses to have it displayed. That display may be in this world or it might wait for the next, but He will judge the inner core of who we really are and there is no escaping it. False facades and fortune only last so long before eventually being blown to pieces.

The lesson of Neil Armstrong is a more uplifting one. Attempt to accomplish great things – indeed, take one small step by one small step in creating and becoming a giant leap of a man for all mankind – but remain humble while doing so. Reach the moon of accomplishment but don’t become arrogant and aloof as a result of your greatness. Retain and maintain humility and modesty. As Chazal (Avos 2:9) say, “If you have learned much Torah, don’t give yourself a lot of credit, for this is why you were created.” Feel as if you are just doing your job and don’t allow yourself to become a pompous celebrity. Never forget that you must view yourself as a servant, an eved Hashem, and don’t try to cash in on your “celebrity” in any way for self-serving purposes.

Perhaps these are some of the lessons we are meant to learn from the tale of two Armstrongs in Elul.

Rabbi Boruch Leff is an assistant principal at Torah Institute in Baltimore and the author of five books. To schedule a speaking engagement with Rabbi Leff or to receive two books for the price of one – “Shabbos in My Soul” and “More Shabbos in My Soul” (Feldheim) – or to purchase the book “Are You Growing?” (Feldheim) at 40% off, contact the author at sbleff@gmail.com.

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