Saturday, May 25, 2024

Scaling the Heights

Sir Edmund Hillary is widely known as the first man to climb to the top of Mount Everest. Mixing courage, determination and skill, in 1953 he succeeded in climbing the towering peak. Before him, many had attempted the feat and failed. His accomplishment drew interest and excitement around the globe and conferred upon him hero status. However, historians later discovered that he was the second person to reach the top of the world's tallest mountain.

Decades before Hillary conquered the mountain, a climber named George Mallory had attempted the climb. He tried twice in 1921, and then again in 1924 after saying that he was making another attempt “because it’s there… Ever­est is the high­est moun­tain in the world, and no man has reached its sum­mit. Its exis­tence is a chal­lenge.”

The last time he was seen was on his way to make that climb. It was widely assumed that he had died on the way up and never accomplished his goal. His body wasn’t able to acclimate to the thin air or the frigid temperatures or deal with the others many hazards that had previously led man to believe that the mountain could not be climbed.

When Mallory’s frozen body was found by climbers in 1999, scientists stated that the evidence suggested that he had been to the top and was making his way down when he lost his life.

As a result of the discovery, according to them, Hillary was unfairly crowned as “the first”. However, something Hillary said after his historic climb came to have even more meaning than when it was originally stated. When discussing the feat no one had thought possible until he accomplished it, Hillary said that reaching the top of the mountain was not really enough. “I was very much aware that we still had to get safely back down the mountain again, and that was quite an important factor,” he said. “I really felt the most excitement when we finally got to the bottom of the mountain again and it was all behind us.”

On the first two nights of this new year, the baal tefillah dramatically intoned the posuk from Tehillim which states, “Mi ya’aleh behar Hashem umi yokum bimkom kadsho.” Dovid Hamelech appears to be asking, “Who is capable of ascending the mountain of Hashem and capable of remaining at that exalted level?”

Perhaps we can understand the question differently.

Dovid Hamelech is asking not only who can climb the mountain of Hashem, but “umi yokum,” who can maintain that high level even after the inevitable descent. Who can be “mekayeim,” or sustain, those levels once he has come down to earth? Who can maintain the high levels reached during the Yomim Noraim throughout the coming days of the year?

Our challenge now is to incorporate and adapt what we have learned and experienced over Elul and Tishrei into our lives. Perhaps this is why the month of Cheshvan contains no holidays. It is a period set aside for spending time internalizing the lessons and levels of the past two months. It therefore has no outstanding days of its own to interrupt the acclimation process.

On Simchas Torah afternoon, I went to shul for Minchah. A “reshima d’kedushah,” an imprint of holiness, was felt in the room – the echo of raised voices and stamping feet, lingering smells of sweat and dust, crumpled flags and empty candy wrappers. There was a lone figure present, a gentleman slumped over in utter exhaustion, obviously recuperating from what must have been a very long day.

In my own post-Hakafos reverie, I mused that the image of my slumbering friend was that of Klal Yisroel in golus, slumped over, worn out from endless travels, bewildered and unsure. We rest our weary heads and wonder what is expected of us.

As I approached my dozing pal, he stirred, coming alive at my “gut yom tov” greeting. He lifted his head and smiled through the haze, and I thought to myself that this is the image of the Yid in golus. As the posuk states, “Ani yesheina velibi eir.” The Jew picks himself up and starts again.

Never is this lesson more relevant than now, at this time of the year, in the current climate. Less than two weeks after Simchas Torah, with the memories fading, slumber threatens to overtake us. It’s all too easy to slump over and lose ourselves in sleep.

In truth, no nightmare is as harsh as reality, the news in the golah and in Eretz Yisroel. It takes strength, courage and drive just to go on.

Most of all, it takes the middah personified by Noach, the steady, unwavering diligence with which he forged on. Simple temimus.

Imagine what it must have been like for him. Consider the thoughts that must have been going through his mind as he tried, for 120 years, to convince the world to repent. He was mocked and vilified. He couldn’t even persuade one person to lead a moral life. How dejected he must have been!

Yet, we are told otherwise. Even as the rains began to fall, he pleaded for a little more time, holding out against the hope that perhaps he could convince someone to repent. He had been charged with a mission and he never quit. Therefore, the posuk tells us, he found favor in the eyes of Hashem.

If ever someone had reason to put head in hands and forget about the world, it was Noach. His golus was worse than ours. He was completely surrounded by immoral people. There was not one other family with whom he could converse on an equal level. The world was so evil that it had to be destroyed. Yet, Noach persisted in being a tzaddik and fulfilling the ratzon Hashem, guided by temimus and simple faith. He lived atop a lonely mountain, but he came down in an attempt to care for others and try to influence them.

It’s all too easy to grow lonely and despondent. We can look around and lose hope, seeing a world gone mad and wring our hands. Noach teaches us not to grow dejected, to keep hammering away and building.

We look to Eretz Yisroel and think of the heartrending funerals and shivah homes, the fresh yesomim and almanos. We think of the continuing wave of terror and tragedies and weep. Our hearts break as we think of the panic and dread that fill the hearts of our brothers and sisters. We see our enemies emboldened, their youth taking up knives and searching for Jews to kill. We see their imams, their friends and the international media cheering them on. We bemoan the double standard and wonder when and how it will end.

We ponder the general security situation there and shudder. We think of the lack of achdus and we shake. We worry about the future of our Israeli brethren. How will they hold out? How will they manage? How will they pay their bills?

We see the void created by America’s abdication of leadership and wonder where it will lead. We see groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda gaining. Countries such as Russia and Iran are solidifying gains and wonder if and when the West will challenge them.

We look at what is taking place in this country and aren’t much more optimistic. We see a president who threatens Israel, an administration that governs irresponsibly, and a party that supports them, enabling them to carry forward their misguided agenda. We see immorality throughout the land and watch helplessly as the laws of the country are changed by fiat, throwing us into the same boat as Sedom. We fear the unknown and don’t know what will come next. We watch a presidential campaign taking shape and wonder if a courageous, honest and forthright leader, who can set the country on a proper path once again, will emerge.

The golus tightens, and we fear that the luxurious, comfortable ride we have thankfully become accustomed to may encounter turbulence. We fret and worry. And then we learn Parshas Noach and are reminded to remain optimistic and never give up on our ability to fulfill our mission and Hashem’s commands.

The posuk tells us that Hashem told Noach to build a “tzohar” in the teivah. Some interpret this as a command to place a window in the teivah to provide light. Others say that it was a light-emitting diamond. Everything in the teivah was supernatural, for there is no way that it could have contained so many passengers and supplies, much less survive the flood. It was a Divine ship cloaked in nature. Rashi tells us that the teivah accepted only species that remained faithful to their partners. It was a vessel of purity and holiness, presented as a boat.

In this miraculous teivah, Hashem told Noach to construct a “tzohar” for light. Perhaps there was an additional message there for him and us: No matter how bleak everything appears, no matter how much rain pounds on your teivah, no matter how dark it is outside, always look for the glimmer of hope and light, for it always exists. Despite all the destruction, life existed and would regenerate and repopulate the world. Despite overwhelming darkness, there is always light.

Rav Avrohom Dov Auerbach, brother of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, once asked the Chazon Ish why it is that in his generation, even young talmidei chachomim were able to rise to great heights in a relatively short time and were capable of being mechadeish chiddushei Torah, while in previous generations, it took scholars much more time to achieve the same levels. The Chazon Ish turned to him and said quite cryptically that it was “because of the ashes of the furnaces.”

Rav Auerbach explained that the ability of young people in our generation to rise and excel is due to the power of the Torah of Jews, young and old, who toiled and excelled in Torah, but were exterminated by the Nazis during the war. As Chazal say, “Gevillim nisrofim, osiyos porchos b’avir.” The parchments burnt, but the letters flew into the air, where they hover, waiting for people to come and grab them.

The darkness and fires of the Holocaust gave birth to the rejuvenation. The destruction was awful, inconceivable to us seven decades later. So many millions of people lost their lives, so many millions were forever affected. There is no facet of Jewish life that was not altered, but with the penetrating darkness came a ray of light. “Mitoch tzarah hamtzi’eim pedus urevachah,” we asked in Selichos. From the depths of the pain itself, find us a glimmer of salvation. In the most severe din, there is still rachamim.

The Chofetz Chaim would often quote the Gemara that describes the posuk in Eichah (3:6) which states, “Bemachashakim hoshivani kemeisei olam – He thrust me into the darkness as the dead,” as a reference to Talmud Bavli. The Talmud we all study, the Talmud that is the foundation of our lives, is a mammoth achievement that emerged specifically from the gloom of the exile.

It is easy to get pulled down, to stand on the sidelines and shrug our shoulders, agreeing that nothing can be done. We can excuse our inaction by convincing ourselves that even if we were to act, nothing would be accomplished. Noach stands by his teivah and proclaims that this is not true. He reminds us that we must do what we can. Standing up for what is correct, proper and moral is itself an accomplishment. Defending the righteous is the correct course of action, whether or not you prevail.

Thus, the Torah testifies, “Noach ish tzaddik tomim hayah bedorosav.” Although his generation was depraved, Noach stood out as a tzaddik because he wasn’t deterred from his mission, despite the obvious fact that everyone else in the world was opposed to him and what he was doing.

He went b’temimus, knowing that man’s mission is not necessarily to win every battle, but to do his best to succeed. We do what we can. We work as hard as we can, expending our energy to the best of our abilities in the pursuit of justice and propriety and fulfilling Hashem’s will. Whether we accomplish anything is in the Hands of Hashem. There is a partnership. We labor and Hashem combines our efforts and completes the job when He so desires. 

Each year, at the close of Hakafos at Yeshiva Be’er Yaakov, Rav Shlomo Wolbe would ask the talmidim to sing “Vaharikosi lochem brachah ad beli dai.” He would explain, “We sang such beautiful songs today, reminding ourselves of such elevating and powerful realities, but we are all at risk of forgetting and letting it slip away. We close the Hakafos with a request for brachah. May Hashem allow the blessings we accrued today to remain with us and become part of our lives.”

Rav Shimshon Pincus once remarked that everyone appears a bit dejected after yom tov is over, as they go back to the daily grind. Everyone, that is, except for a few people: the esrog merchant, the fellow who sold s’chach, the hat-store owner, and anyone else whose busiest season was the period leading up to the yom tov. “Now,” explained Rav Pincus, “with pockets full, they can finally rest and enjoy their hard-earned profits.”

We are all merchants, emerging from the lofty days with pockets full. How we spend our profits depends on us, the choices we make, the altitudes we reached, and the attitudes we have. It’s time to wake up, smile, and face life focused on our own teivos, building, traveling, and climbing ever higher using the gifts we have been given.

May the brachos accompany us and brighten our way, ad beli dai.



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