That was the grade a crisis management expert gave Ryan Lochte on his recent round of apologies. And that was pretty generous.
Lochte has received almost universally negative reviews for how he handled the situation in Rio from beginning to end. How could he have thought, so many have asked, that anyone would buy the story that he had been robbed at gunpoint while driving on the highway? Sooner or later it would have become evident that the incident had in fact taken place in a gas station, not the roadway, after he and his friends had kicked in the restroom door. For what kind of fool did he take us?
And it's true. Intoxication aside, it is difficult to imagine what Lochte might have been thinking. In that respect, it really is hard to imagine ourselves in his shoes, inventing a patently false story only to be shamed in front of the entire world.
In truth, though, while in many respects Lochte is radically unlike so many of us, in other ways his behavior is actually quite typical. So typical that it reveals a fundamental element of human nature that is especially pertinent as we enter the month of Elul.
To bring out the point it's worth considering the one critique that wasn't regularly voiced against the swimmer: Lochte should have immediately admitted that he made a mistake and moved on. Of course, this is the most obvious response, yet it often is not part of the discussion. And even when this suggestion is raised, it is usually a matter of tactics: immediately confronting his guilt would have been the best way for him to ensure that the situation would blow over and he'd be able to retain his endorsements. But the idea that he should have confessed immediately as a matter of principle has been rarely voiced.
And for good reason. Because the truth is, in this respect we are all very much like Ryan. No one likes to look in the mirror and honestly confess his or her mistakes. Our instinct is to hide from our shortcomings and refuse to admit them honestly to ourselves, never mind others.
What wisdom might the Torah offer us as we seek to overcome this deeply-seated characteristic that directly undercuts our ability to repent?
The beginnings of an approach appear in Parshat Re'eh, which opens with a simple proposition: we may choose either the path of blessing, associated with the observance of mitzvot, or that of curse, by rejecting God's commands. The stark distinction drawn by Moshe Rabbeinu seems simplistic. Does any of us choose either the path of life or that of death? Don't we all choose elements of both? And isn't the charge of Moshe Rabbeinu - and that of Elul - that we move the needle of our lives to a meaningful degree from curse to blessing? No one chooses a life of unadulterated blessing or pure curse.
Rashi was bothered by the question and suggests, based on the rabbis, that the path of idolatry is indeed purely that of curse. One who worships idolatry, after all, is considered to have violated the entirety of the Torah.
However, another approach is possible, which begins with a separate observation about this week's parsha. Re'eh is not to be viewed as an isolated section of the Torah but as part of the broader sweep of Sefer Devarim. The book is divided into three major sections. In chapters 1-11, Moshe delivers his historical review, punctuated by an honest assessment of the Jews' behavior during that time, ranging from the good to the bad to the ugly. In the second section, which runs from chapter 12 through 26 and beginning with Parshat Re'eh, Moshe turns to the future, offering a vision of life in the holy land that will enable the Jews to embrace the path of blessing. Finally, in the concluding chapters of the sefer, the Jews commit themselves to such a lifestyle by accepting upon themselves the covenant.
Immediately following the convenantal commitment Moshe foresees a time of repentance:
When all these things befall you - the blessing and the curse that I have set before you - and you shall return to your heart ("vahasheivota el levavekha") amidst the various nations to which the Lord your God has banished you, and you return to the Lord your God, and you and your children heed His command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day. (Devarim 30:1-2)
Moshe's realism is striking. He recognizes that eventually the Jews will experience the whole gamut -"the blessing and the curse." Apparently, Parshat Re'eh is Moshe's way of frightening the people by presenting a stark choice. In fact, though, even Moshe recognizes that real life is messier than that.
But there is something else worth noting here as well. Apparently, returning to one's heart precedes a return to God. What does it mean to return to one's heart?
One might suggest that this is a reference to Rav Kook's doctrine of repentance. For Rav Kook, repentance is essentially a return to one's true personality, a whittling away of all the dross of sin that has built up around our pure souls. A return to one's heart is, therefore, the essence of repentance.
The classic Italian commentator Seforno offers another approach. He suggests that in order to repent properly, we must first step back, consider the contradictions in our spiritual lives between where we have chosen blessing and curse, and then step back into ourselves with greater clarity and commitment to choose good.
Seforno's understanding of the return to one's heart is profound. On his view, the first step toward engage in repentance and even introspection is to step outside ourselves, to engage in a metaphorical act of disembodiment. Precisely because it is our nature to rationalize our behaviors and view ourselves in the most positive of lights, we cannot return to God without first stepping outside of ourselves and engaging in a hard but honest cheshbon hanefesh in which we take stock of ourselves and our accomplishments. Only by first taking a good honest look at ourselves in the mirror can we step back into our hearts with greater clarity and commitment.
Seforn's insight may help us to understand an unusual aspect of the month of Elul. The letters comprising the month we have just begun are traditionally associated with three verses, each of whose first letters spell the word Elul:
Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li - I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.
Ish le-re'ehu umatanot la'evyonim - The obligation to give portions to one's fellow Jew.
Ina le-yado ve-samti lekha - If one kills accidentally, God will set aside a place for the killer to flee.
The common denominator between the three is the emphasis on interpersonal obligations. While Ani le-dodi allegorically refers to our relationship with God, on a literal level it highlights the value of romance, an instance of intense interpersonal connection. Gifts to the poor is of course a classic example of an interpersonal obligation. And the accidental killer refers to a case in which an individual was overly concerned with his own activities, such as chopping wood in a forest, and does not stop to consider the possibility that there are others in the vicinity whose safety might be endangered.
Why the emphasis on interpersonal obligations? On one level, the acronyms serve as a corrective. We might be overly inclined to focus during Elul on our relationship with God, so the name reminds us of the critical importance of improving our relationships.
But another explanation may be offered. One who wishes to engage in repentance must begin, we have said, by stepping outside oneself. One who puts others' needs first has demonstrated the ability to step outside him or herself and consider the needs of others. One who is empathetic is better positioned to engage in the process of repentance in all its facets.
In the viduy recited on Yom Kippur we ask God to forgive us for sins we violated with "imutz ha-lev," hardness of the heart. Rabbi Sacks' commentary to the Yom Kippur Machazor perfectly captures the line's meaning according to many commentaries:
We committed a particular sin so many times we no longer had a bad conscience about doing so.
If we fail to be honest with ourselves, we run the risk of ending up like Ryan Lochte, sliding deeper and deeper into our sinful ways. By stepping outside ourselves and honestly considering our actions, we can avoid the hardening of the heart and instead embrace a return. In doing so, we can best position ourselves to utilize the coming month of Elul to choose blessings for the year to come.