Thoughts on Joe Paterno and Abraham
What happened in Happy Valley this week-- the shocking end to one of the most storied careers in all of sport-- deserves our attention. As a Rabbi who interacts daily with our nation’s future leaders, what lesson can I impart, what can we learn from this tragic story?
Anyone who follows sports knows that a head coach gets very little of the glory when his team succeeds and all the blame when it fails. It is no surprise that the man in the middle of the saga at Penn State is Joe Paterno. He is not the man who committed the crime, nor is he the one who witnessed the crime. Reports made their way up the food chain at Penn State and the university’s president seems to have been held accountable. The perpetrator himself has been arrested. Has not justice been served? Why then is Joe Paterno in the middle of this?
This week’s Torah portion tells a strange story of Abraham arguing with the Almighty about the fate of Sedom and Gemorah; towns filled with people so sinful in the eyes of God that He chose to utterly destroy them.
Abraham, however, comes to the defense of these people. “Will You even destroy the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham asks. This question is understood by the commentators to be “harsh words” “diber kashot.” Abraham is challenging the rational basis for G-d’s decision and is doing so in with something of an attitude.
How could it be that Abraham our forefather, the man who God identifies as the “Abraham who loves me,” and the man who personifies love and kindness would talk to God in such a manner? At the very least, shouldn’t he have tread lightly, started with positive words and then moved on to stronger language?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe understands the lesson here clearly: when it comes to saving a life, physically or spiritually, we must to do everything in our power to push aside our natural inclinations, to depart from our comfort zone and to speak harsh words; to do what is right, even when it challenges the will of God Almighty. Abraham refused to believe that a whole city was deserving of this fate and-- at the expense of his own relationship with the most important being in his world--he was going to do everything in his power to fight it.
Joe Paterno had a chance; a moment to do the right thing. It would have been devastatingly uncomfortable and, yes, he would have been forced to betray his friend, risking the loss of a deeply valued relationship. He would have endured many sleepless nights as a consequence but he would have been undeniably right in doing so. Instead he chose to pass the buck and not get his hands dirty; he may have felt that he wanted to keep his friendship intact, who knows. What is clear is he made the wrong choice, he lacked the moral fortitude to do justice. He chose to hide in his comfort zone and instead of turning in his friend, he chose to betray young innocent boys. We’ll never know how many more sleepless nights he’ll now have to endure.
It is our duty and responsibility to know what is right and to stand up for our moral convictions. Abraham teaches us and gives us the strength to honor this duty at all costs. In the face of this responsibility--and when the cost to our personal comforts is all that’s at stake-- the price is almost always worth paying.