Reaching Our Goals
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
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I can’t help but tell you about a documentary that I watched last week while I was on vacation. It made such an impression on me that I must share the inspiration. “Walking in to thin Air” is a true story about an diverse group of men and women that joined together in Nepal to go on an expedition to the top of Mount Everest. There was a Japanese businesswoman, a pathologist, a mailman and nine others that paid $65,000 to realize the greatest dream of their life; to stand on top of the Earth. They met with their well-seasoned guides and the rest of their expedition at the foot of the mountain. They were told about camp one, camp two, camp three and camp four. Mount Everest stands just shy of 30,000 feet high. This is the average altitude of a 747 while crossing the ocean. The wind chill factor averages 100 degrees below zero. From camp three upward it is impossible to survive without oxygen. One wrong step means immediate death. Reaching the top of the mountain is called “summiting”. This is the goal. Ninety percent of those that set out to climb the mountain do not summit. Many of those that do summit never come home. “Walking in to thin Air” is a sad story because five of the climbers didn’t make it home. Mostly because they thought themselves to be invincible.
We consider people that attempt this climb heroes. They possess some of the loftiest attributes known to mankind - perseverance, self-confidence, will power and a drive that is almost spiritual.
I was shaken by the presentation. Why did they climb the mountain? Why did a man whose wife was in her ninth month of pregnancy decide to undertake one of the most dangerous feats attempted by man? When the first man slipped and tumbled 10,000 feet into an ice gorge to his death, why didn’t they all turn back? When they reached camp 3 and saw skeletons and evidence of hundreds of years of death on the mountain why did they keep on going? When they were gasping for air and saw that they were running out of oxygen why did they continue? Why? “Because it was there!” They needed the satisfaction of touching a flagpole at the top of the mountain. They needed to have their picture taken and get their name in some obscure almanac that nobody reads. Maybe, with great luck, they would end up on some daytime TV free access cable talk show.
As the documentary ended something new dawned on me. Mesiras Nefesh, determination and strong backbone can be the ingredients of true greatness or it can be the prelude to stupidity. It is foolish to risk harm to yourself, your family and all those around you in order to “summit”.
Now let me tell you another story. Korach was a smart man. He was a wealthy man. As a Levite in Egypt he didn’t have to work, instead he became an Egyptologist and discovered one of Joseph’s buried treasures in Egypt. He was a respected man. Korach was one of the bearers of the Aron, the Holy Ark. But there was a mountain he needed to climb. He needed to stand on top of the earth. He needed the positions of Moshe and Aharon. He needed to summit! He and his people and his wealth plummeted to the lowest gorge on earth and then fell down even further.
Herein lays the difference between Moshe and Korach, between the tzaddik and the fool, between the leader and the egomaniac. Moshe Rabeinu didn’t need to summit. He was a humble man. When he was a prince in Egypt, he did the right thing. When he was a shepherd of his father-in-law Yisro, he did the right thing. When he returned to Egypt, when he stood at the Yam Suf, he always did the right thing. He rose to the top; he didn’t climb to the top. Even when he climbed Har Sinai he paced himself with humility. He had no need to summit. Moshe rose to the top and stayed there; Korach climbed to the top and fell.
For us – we must examine and re-examine our goals. Just because we are acting with perseverance, courage and self-sacrifice it doesn’t mean that we are acting with nobility. We can be driven, but to what end? We can persevere but there must be a just purpose.
In Yiddishkeit getting to the top of the corporate ladder is not what’s important – it’s what you do on each rung. When we build our lives and homes, success is not about heroism but about integrity. In a relationship mesiras nefesh, determination and courage are needed to do the simple right things, to be honest, to care and to build a Bayis Neeman B’Yisroel.
Follow your heart! “At that moment their hearts screamed out, ‘Stand Up! The leader of the Jewish people is passing!’ Generations later King David commented (Tehilim 45): ‘Their hearts led them the right way.’
When your brain fails you and when your conscience confuses you, there is another way. Follow your heart! Your heart is probably telling the truth. When Pinchos stopped the plague attacking Israel, he was led by his heart. When Nachshon ben Aminodov walked into a sea, he followed his heart. When Jews through the generations gave up their lives rather than convert, they followed their heart. When communities returned to Israel during the time of Ezra, and again today, they followed their heart. Your heart tells the truth.
“I made man straight but he makes complicated calculations” (Tehilim). It’s great to think, to talk, to discuss, to opine and to criticize. But ultimately your heart says, ‘Do the right thing!’
I often think about crying. Babies always cry. Children cry easily. As we mature we don’t cry, and if we do we are embarrassed. We excuse ourselves for being emotional.
Yet Chazal attribute holiness to tears. We are taught that we should cry over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdosh, over innocent victims of terror, over the shame of Torah. We don’t cry over these things. We talk, we pray, we fast, we give money – but we don’t cry.
Sometimes our heart tells us to cry, but as our emotions travel through our cognitive system they are filtered by our brain. Feelings become opinions. Anguish becomes negativity, love becomes comfort. That is the way we are wired! But sometimes we can’t let our minds get in the way of our hearts. Sometimes we have to override our minds and feel. We can’t be made of stone! We need to be able to cry – and if we shed a tear, it comes straight from our heart and is holy.
So the children of Korach followed their heart. The Hebrew word for this is Teshuvah. Return to your heart!
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