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Parashat Lekh Lekha 5781

October 30, 2020
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Like Terah or Abraham?
A D’var Torah for Parashat Lekh Lekha
By Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04)

Today I am going to do something quite audacious. I am going to disagree with one of the greatest sages who ever lived! I am going to take issue with one of the greatest Jewish minds of the 20th century — The Hafetz Hayyim!

Ever since Ora Prouser introduced us to his collection of weekly Torah Commentary, “Al HaTorah”, I have turned to this collection for study and inspiration. For this week’s Torah portion he focuses on this verse, “Abraham took his family and his possessions and went forth to go to the Land of Caanan – and he came to the land of Caanan” (Gen. 12:5). He compares this to a verse about Terah, Abraham’s father, that we read last week.  There the Torah says, “Terah went forth from Ur Kasdim to go to the Land of Caanan, and he came to the city of Haran, and he settled there” (Gen.11:31).

Comparing these two verses teaches us a valuable lesson, says the Hafetz Hayyim. We should be like Abraham and not like Terah. When we set out to do something, we must not deviate from our goal nor change our plans, like Terah did – we should continue until we accomplish our task, as Abraham shows us.  We must persevere until we reach our goal.

Therein lays my disagreement with the Hafetz Hayyim. I am going to argue that sometimes we need to be like Terah, and change our minds, and not be like Abraham, and persevere in our journey.  For this we turn to the true story of an Israeli man named Nadav ben Yehudah.

In May, 2012, 24 year old Nadav ben Yehuda, a professional mountaineer, set off to become the youngest Israeli ever to climb to the top of Mt. Everest.  On the night before his assault on the summit, he slept at a camp about a half mile below the peak. He woke before sunrise and set off for the top of the world. He was about 900 feet below his goal, and it appeared he would reach the top of Everest before sunrise.  He was so close, he could almost taste it!

It was then that he recognized a figure sprawled out beside an icy ridge before him, unconscious.  It was Aydin Irmak, a Turkish climber who Nadav had met at the base camp.  A number of other climbers had already passed the unconscious man on their way to the summit.  Nadav ben Yehudah had a choice to make. He could pass by the helpless climber, as others had, and leave him to die from exposure.  Or, he could abandon his quest for the top of Mt. Everett and try to rescue the half frozen Irmak.  Even if he tried to get him down the mountain, there was no guarantee that he would get him down alive.  Perhaps both of them would perish in the rescue attempt.

Nadav ben Yehudah did not hesitate. “People passed him by and didn’t do a thing. I didn’t think for a second about politics – the fact that he was Turkish and I was Israeli. I also didn’t think about the glory. All I thought about is that I can save this person – and that’s what I did.”

So Nadav abandoned his quest for the summit and turned back. Nadav had to carry the injured Turk down the mountain alone, attached to a harness.  It took ten hours to get him to the base camp.  Both were flown by helicopter to Katmandu and hospitalized. Ayden Irmak survived and regained his health. Nadav suffered severe frostbite of his fingers because during the rescue he had to remove his gloves.  “I hope the doctors don’t have to amputate them,” he said, “because I want to keep climbing”.

In his book on the Hebrew prophets, Rabbi Rami Shapiro comments on a passage from Isaiah, “God is asking you to live without certainty; knowing only the way (justice, kindness, and compassion) and giving no thought to the destination” (Page 40).  Nadav ben Yehudah certainly had a destination – the top of Mt. Everest.  But when uncertainty crossed his path, his “way” became not the shortest path to the summit. His way was his justice, his kindness, and his compassion.  It was no detour. He was on that path all along.

Our world, for the most part, looks at things the other way around.  It values the destination more than the way we achieve it.  Witness the athletes, for whom winning is more important than the way they win. Witness the bankers for whom making a profit is more important than the way they make a profit. And yes, witness the politicians for whom getting elected is far more important than the way they get elected.  Witness all the climbers who made their way around an injured fellow in their single minded attempt to reach the top of the world.

Nadav ben Yehudah never reached the heights of Mt. Everest.  I think you will agree with me that he reached heights far greater than that.  I think the Hafetz Hayyim would have been proud of Nadav ben Yehudah.  May he serve as an example and as a reminder to us all.  Yes, we should persevere in our goals, like Abraham.  But we ought not to be so single minded that we shunt aside our values on the way to reaching our destination.  Sometimes, it is better to be like Terah.
Marc Rudolph (AJR 04) is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Illinois.