On Top of the World

By Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism

Rabbi Rick Jacobs at NFTY ConventionDon’t you guys have homework to do? Can you really afford to be here at NFTY convention?

Don’t you have to write those college applications?

Many of you live with an enormous amount of stress and pressure.  More, we believe, than many previous generations.  More than your young souls can easily handle.

Raise your hand if you feel intense pressure to achieve.

Matt Stone, one of the talented creators of South Park, laid out the stressful mentality that teens live by.  He remembers how his life was presented to him:

“Everyone said don’t screw up because if you screw up you won’t get into honors math in the seventh grade and if you don’t get into honors math in the seventh grade then you won’t get into it in the eighth or ninth or tenth or eleventh and you’ll die poor and lonely.”

Is that what life is all about?   Is there a different way to be? Maybe on this Shabbat it’s worth taking hold of a different bottom line.  Is life only about clawing our way to the top?

Since he was a little boy, 24-year-old Nadav Ben-Yehuda had a dream.   He wanted to be the youngest Israeli to climb Mt. Everest.  It seemed like nothing would get in the way of him achieving that goal.

After finishing his service in the IDF, he trained for two years climbing mountains all over the world.  He was a young man with an audacious goal.  Finally last May he was ready.

Make no mistake about it; climbing Mount Everest is not like climbing just any tall mountain.

Between 1922 and 2010, 219 people died on Everest. On his way up, Nadav passed two dead bodies. There would be four dead on Everest that weekend.

But Nadav was determined.  He would not be stopped.  When he arrived at Camp IV, he had 1000 meters left before reaching the summit.  But it was a brutally cold night, 40 degrees below zero. 125 miles per hour winds were blowing making the ascent nearly impossible.  But Nadav was not a quitter so he pushed himself though half-frozen and exhausted.

He continued trudging, until he suddenly came to a stop some 250 meters away from the summit.

Nadav could see the summit; his dream was within his grasp.

All of a sudden he saw the body of a climber sprawled out in the ice.  He couldn’t tell for sure but the man looked dead. As he looked closer he recognized the man.  It was his friend Aydin Irmak, a 46-year-old Turkish man who had befriended him at base camp.

Nadav looked at the summit and then at his friend on the edge of life and in that instant he knew what he needed to do.  His boyhood dream – his goal; in a heartbeat he put them aside.

Nadav picked up Aydin and carried him for eight hours down the mountain without gloves or oxygen.  The only thing Aydin remembers is the sound of Nadav’s voice, “Aydin, Aydin, are you there, Brother?  Can you move your legs?”

The entire trip slumped over Ben-Yehuda’s back was a semiconscious journey for Irmak.

Aydin kept saying, “Put me down.  Leave me before we both die.”

Aydin had made it to the summit but would have surely died without his Israeli brother. He wanted his certificate of reaching the summit made out to Nadav, but the Nepalese authorities would not do it.

Add this to the mix: Turkey and Israel are currently experiencing hostility, but not these two men.  Nadav and Aydin could not be bothered with the growing tensions between Israel and Turkey, and instead, continue to think of each other as brothers.

The extreme conditions left both men with severe burns all over their faces, and Ben-Yehuda’s ungloved hand was blackened to a crisp.   But eventually, the men made it back to Camp IV, where a helicopter came to their rescue – saving both of them.

To Ben-Yehuda, the choice to forgo his summit climb and save his new friend was simple, a no-brainer.

Speaking to a reporter, Ben-Yehuda said his army service taught him that “you never leave a comrade in the field.”  It’s true that the IDF puts great emphasis—not just in talk but in training—on bringing everyone home.

The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber taught:  “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” God was on that mountain as Nadav and Aydin made their way down.

Nadav Ben-Yehuda is not the youngest Israeli to climb Everest.  He could have been, but he has no regets. What would you have done? What would I have done?

What mountain are you climbing?  Not literally.  What are reaching for?  Nadav had a higher goal than simply climbing the tallest mountain.

Aydin is Muslim and Nadav a Jew, but on that fateful day last May religious difference was not the most important thing.  Who is a part of your circle of love and responsibility?   How did Nadav become the person he is today?   Was he just born that way, or did he learn it along the way?   Can NFTY be a community that nurtures young people like Nadav?

On this Shabbat, please join me as we try to clarify what we’re reaching for, what our lives are about.

Maybe it’s worth spending a few minutes on this very special Shabbat, with this extraordinary community of young leaders, setting our sights on the highest goals we can imagine.

That’s why we’re here this weekend.  Homework can wait.  College essays will be written.

What we’re building here in our NFTY youth community is bigger than college, bigger than doing well.  It’s about doing good.

I don’t know about you, but in my book, Nadav Ben Yehuda will always be on top of the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

2 Responses to “On Top of the World”

  1. avatar Paul Kipnes says:

    This sounded amazing at the convention itself. Reads great too. Thanks for posting.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs and NFTY President Evan Traylor delivered a joint D’var Torah during Saturday morning T’fillah at last weekend’s NFTY Convention and Youth Engagement Conference, which run concurrently. An abridged text and full video of their address follows; you can also find the full text of Rabbi Jacobs Friday night d’var Torah, “On Top of the World,” here. [...]


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