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Standing on Top of the World
Parshat Bechukotai

They call it “Standing on Top of the World.” In reality, it refers to standing on top of Mount Everest, which at 29,029 feet above sea level, is the highest point on Planet Earth. And while standing on Everest’s summit isn’t exactly standing on top of the whole world, it’s still kind of cool, and a nice addition to anyone’s bucket list. The problem is that too many people are trying to check off that bucket list item at once, and the largest mountain in the world doesn’t have enough room for them. People are spending fortunes buying themselves graves in the highest cemetery in the world.

Sixty-six years and two days ago, the first summit of Mount Everest was accomplished by Sir Edmund Hillary and his guide Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. They were not the first people to attempt the climb, eight British expeditions before them ended in failure, a number of them in death. One of the mountain’s first fatalities, English mountaineer George Leigh Mallory, when asked why he was so determined to summit the mountain, explained, “Because it’s there.”

Mount Everest is there, but she not the warm and inviting type. No, she’s the crazy old lady living in the haunted house on top of the hill. People warn you that she’s got guns, booby traps, and according to some, a rabid pet wolf, but the spunky teenagers have to go check for themselves. For years no one made it up the steps, but once someone got in and out safely, everyone wants the glory. Except she still lives there, and she does have guns, booby traps, and a rabid pet wolf.

When Hillary and Norgay came down to worldwide fame and distinction, they assumed that no one would every go up again. It was so dangerous, and it had already been conquered. But to date thousands have summitted Everest and hundreds have died trying. The problem today is that with modern infrastructure, it’s easy for anyone to get to Base Camp, and if you’re determined to go, and you have a bunch of extra shekels, almost anyone can buy a license to summit.

This year, Nepal sold a record 381 of the $11,000 licenses, and while that amounts to only $4.2MM, there are hundreds of millions more spent on gear, food, preparations, guides, recuperation, and medical services. All told, Everest tourism brings Nepal, one of the poorest nations in the world, between $100-300MM each year, money they simply can’t forego. And while 381 people doesn’t sound like a huge number of people, there are actually double that number, because each climber must go with a Sherpa guide. Even 762 doesn’t sound like a big number, but there are very few days a year when Everest is climbable, and on those few days, there is a bum rush of hundreds of people pushing toward the top.

The most important factor is the wind. The jet stream can blow westerly around Everest at over 100 MPH with gusts suddenly dropping down from above at over 50 MPH. Attempting to summit in that kind of wind is absolutely fatal. Most climbers hunker down at one of the 4 camps (known as Base Camp, C2, C3, and C4) and wait for ideal conditions and then scramble as soon as the weather clears for a few days, knowing that there likely won’t be another chance all year. So when the weather is right, hundreds of people are rushing toward the summit, creating nightmarish traffic jams of people waiting, chest to back, puffy jacket to puffy jacket, in -30 degree weather, just to climb a crevasse or traverse a ridgeline.

Above 26,000 feet, most people require oxygen supplements as the air is too thin to provide people with the oxygen necessary to live. Pressurized tanks carry 720 liters of oxygen and weigh about six pounds. Depending on the flow of oxygen, each tank can last between 4-6 hours. The more time spent waiting in line, the greater the risk of frostbite, and the greater the risk of running out of oxygen.

The summit of Everest is really small, about the size of two ping pong tables. When people finally reach the top, they want to celebrate, take selfies, and spend some time standing on top of the world. The problem is that every extra minute you spend standing on top of the world means extra minutes the hundreds of people stand in line waiting their turn exposed to the elements.

This year, with so many licenses being sold, and often to relatively inexperienced climbers, Everest has been a zoo. While climbers on the Tibetan side of Everest are only allowed to buy a license if they can prove that they have already summitted at least one other 25,000-foot-high peak, on the Nepalese side there is no requirement, Nepal is not turning away anyone’s money.

Profiteering expedition companies charge people exorbitant fees, often over $100,000 to give them a luxury climbing experience, with T-bone steaks flown in from Australia, lamb chops and salmon prepared by chefs in pressurized tents at base camp, and gas-powered hot showers. Some of the luxo-climbers don’t even know how to put on their own crampons, the spiky attachments to climbing boots needed for any real mountain climbing.

People are pushing and shoving to get the right photos, stepping around the bodies of people who died only hours earlier. Others, who didn’t prepare properly (possibly because they didn’t realize how many hours they would waste standing in line while people took more selfies on the summit), sit on the side begging people for oxygen. If a climber gives those people their own oxygen, they possibly won’t have enough themselves, which means they could die trying to summit, or save someone’s life, but have to turn around and see their dream of summitting crumble. Most climbers ignore those people and keep climbing, trying not to look at the face of the people they’re condemning to death just to see their dreams come true. Eleven people have already died on Everest this year, and not because of bad weather or avalanches, but simply because of the zoo.

People who summitted this year may feel like they’re standing at the top of the world, but they may also be standing on top of the fresh corpses of their fellow climbers who were not as fortunate.

Nature is not friendly and nice. Nature is stoic. Nature doesn’t care about your life, doesn’t feel compassion, and won’t change itself one iota to accommodate you. It is interesting to note that in the Torah, when describing the creation of the natural world in Genesis Chapter 1, the Torah consistently uses the name of G-d associated with strict discipline, E-lohim. Only when the Torah begins to describe the creation of mankind in detail, in Genesis 2, do we see the name of G-d associated with kindness and compassion, Adonoy, begin to appear in conjunction with the name representing discipline.

The explanation given by Rabbeinu Bachya, based on the Medrash, is that in all of nature, nothing misbehaves, so it doesn’t require the extra mercy of G-d. The fire burns, the water flows, the lion hunts, and the crow flies, everything follows the strict rules G-d gave it. But when G-d was creating mankind, He knew that they would misbehave and not always be their best selves, and they would require a lot of mercy and compassion from G-d. This is why when creating mankind, G-d brought to bear His other name, the name that represents compassion, because a lot of compassion and mercy was going to be needed in order for mankind to survive.

However, perhaps we could understand this in another light as well. Perhaps G-d is telling us that He never expects nature to exhibit mercy, but that He wants to see us humans showing it. G-d doesn’t expect the fire to turn away from a scared child screaming in its path, or the wind to stop blowing over freezing people standing on an exposed ledge on the North Face of Everest. G-d created nature with the name representing strict discipline, and because of that, all nature has the capacity for is uncaring strict discipline. But by creating humanity with both the name representing discipline and the name of mercy, G-d was imbuing us with both abilities, with the expectation that we use both. G-d is expecting us to have mercy on a climber dying slowly of oxygen deprivation even if it means we don’t get to summit. G-d is expecting us to understand that hundreds of people are waiting below us to summit, so when we get to the top, we can let out a whoop, snap a few pics, and head back down as rapidly as possible.

Mount Everest is a place of extremes. Extreme cold, extreme winds, extreme oxygen levels, and extremely difficult climbing terrain. It is precisely in this place of extremes that the difference between nature and humanity should be most discernible. Unfortunately, right now, that is not happening, and all the worst in human nature is playing out on that unforgiving peak. But the extremes also teach us about the means, the extremes teach us a lot about ourselves.

We have storehouses of compassion and mercy inside of ourselves, that were given to us at the moment of our creation. We can give to others to the point that it causes us to give up on things we’d otherwise like to have. Anyone who has given charity consistently for years probably could have an armful of Rolexes or drive a beautiful luxury car had they not given so much away. But we are built differently. We do care, we do have compassion and that is the greatest gift humanity ever received. When we exercise that capacity, we are being uniquely human, and we are fulfilling the very reason G-d creates us on this otherwise unforgiving planet.

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s parsha, Bechukosai, we find the Torah outlining the cause and effect relationship of the world. When the Jewish people as a nation are Jewishly involved, world affairs will be favorable for them. When the Jews lose focus of their mission, and attempt to melt into the background as just another nation, the nations of the world will violently remind them that they are different. In one of the Torah’s descriptions of the Jews’ exile from their homeland it says,vi’avaditem bagoyim” (Lev. 26:38) which translates as “and you will get lost amongst the nations.” This seems like a strange verb to use to describe our exile. Interestingly, there is a special mitzvah that uses the same root word, “hashavat aveida” returning lost objects. What is the connection?

Let us look at one of the key laws of the mitzvah, and through that we will be able to understand the connection. When is one required by Torah law to return a lost object, and when can he rely on the age-old adage, “Finders keepers, losers weepers?” The Mishna teaches us that when there are identifying marks on the object that indicate that it belongs to a specific owner, we are required to try to locate the owner and return it. When there are none, one can keep it (of course, one who returns it even in these cases is laudable, but he is not required to do so by Torah law).

For example, if one finds loose change in the mall, there is no way for the owner to identify it as his, and the finder can keep it. However, if one finds a bracelet on the street, he must try to return it. The way to do so is by putting up signs saying, “I found a bracelet on this date, in this area. Whoever lost it please contact me at this number…” When people call, you can ask them what does it look like? What color stones are in it? How big is it? If the person properly identifies the bracelet through these identifying marks, you return it to them, and pat yourself on your back for the mitzvah you just earned. In this way, finders get heavenly reward, losers get their object, and there are no weepers!

This is possibly what G-d is telling us in the statement, “you will be lost amongst the nations.” We will be like a lost object. If there are identifying marks on us that indicate that we have an owner – G-d – then we will be deserving of being returned to our rightful owner and rightful place. But if, G-d forbid, we will be so lost amongst the nations that there is nothing that says “this nation has a master,” then we won’t be worthy of redemption.

We see this idea reflected in the statement of the Sages. They tell us that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt because they did not change their language, dress, or names. Those were the identifying marks that made them into a nation deserving to be returned to its land and Owner.

We live in a world fraught with peril for the Jewish people. Most Europeans believe that the biggest obstacle to world peace is Israel. The president of a powerful and wealthy Middle Eastern country with a budding nuclear program has promised to wipe Israel off the map. People all around us believe that Israel is an apartheid state, and the Jews are bloodthirsty maniacs with aims for world domination. We often feel that there is nothing we can do to change this sorry state. The Torah here comforts us by telling us that when we show ourselves to be different and unique, when we put marks on ourselves that say “this nation belongs to an owner, G-d,” then we can bring ourselves closer to being returned to our home, and to our Owner!

 

Parsha Summary

The major theme of this week’s parsha, Bechukosai, is the concept that the deeds we do have a direct result on our world. The world is like a finely tuned violin, and our actions like a bow being stretched across the strings. If we play it properly, the most beautiful and harmonious sounds emanate. However, if we play it improperly, the result is jarring and disturbing. It is not so much a punishment as a cause-and-effect relationship with our actions.

In line with that idea, the parsha starts off by saying that if we follow G-d’s Torah properly then our land will produce incredible yields, we will live in peace, (and the Pistons will win the Finals). However, if we refuse to follow G-d’s Torah and instead chose to ignore the role He plays in our world, then He will remove Himself from the picture, and the world will begin to crumble around us. Throughout this difficult period, G-d will wait for us to turn back to Him. If we continue to deny His reality, the devastation will become more and more severe. Ultimately, G-d promises that even during the most trying times our people will endure, He will not totally abandon us, rather He will be with us in our exile. In the end we will return to Him, He will remember the covenant He has with our Fathers and bring us back to our land in peace.

The Parsha then moves on to the subject of the different items that one can consecrate to the Temple, such as property, one’s own value, or his animals. The Torah discusses how a person pays for each, and if and when one can redeem them back for himself. The final verses of Leviticus deal with the second tithe a person gives on his crops, and the tithe on animals.

As we say in Shul (synagogue), when completing one of the Five Books of the Chumash: Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!!!

Quote of the Week: Snow endures but for a season, and joy comes with the morning. – Marcus Aurelius

Random Fact of the Week: Napoleon designed Italy’s national flag.

Funny Line of the Week: Scientists today announces that they have found the cure for apathy. Unfortunately no one seems to care.

Have an Engaging Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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