THE PRAISES OF GREAT MEN

A Sermon for Rosh HaShanah 5773

By Rabbi Wayne Allen

Ben Sira, once recognized as the wisest man I the world, encouraged his audience to “sing the praises of great men…godly men whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten” (Wisdom of Ben Sira 44).  Ben Sira believed that more than political movements or philosophical systems, human history is more deeply affected by the deeds of individuals who serve as paradigms for the rest of us.  It is a view that had fallen victim to desuetude but recently has been rehabilitated by he likes of historians Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollak (Journal of International Security, 2001).  The “Great Man” theory of human history advances the idea that certain key individuals have transformed the course of recorded events. 

The difference between Ben Sira and any contemporary iterations is important.  Counted among Byman and Pollak’s “Great Men” may be Napoleon and even Hitler – Yimakh Shmo.  Influential men need not be virtuous men.  But for Ben Sira, however, great men are “godly men.”  Part of the reason the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah revolves around Avraham Avinu lies in the fact that Abraham is a godly man after whom we can pattern our lives.

Today I will argue that such godly men still reside among us.  We sing their praises as more than tribute.  We sing their praises in order to call attention to their righteous deeds and set them as precedents for us to follow.  One such man is a young Israeli whose story has not received the traction it deserves.

Nadav ben Yehudah was born in Jerusalem, though he now lives in Rehovot.  He is 24-years old.  His father was the chief psychologist for Israel’s Defense Forces and his mother was the deputy mayor of Holon.  The oldest of five children, he gained valuable skills as a teen-ager exploring the outdoors; skills that served him well in his army service as a commando.  Near the end of his military service, he read Jon Krakauer’s best-selling personal account of his climb of Mount Everest and decided that he would be the fifth Israeli to make it to the summit, and the youngest ever to accomplish the feat.  Ben Yehudah took a mountain climbing course in the Swiss Alps but created his own training regimen by climbing the stairs of Israel’s tallest building, the Moshe Aviv Tower in Ramat Gan.  In addition to walking up the 76 flights of stairs, he ran 20 miles twice each week and once a week for thirty miles in the fields near his home.

For three years he kept up his training, altered his diet, and made sure to get at least eight hours sleep each and every night.  He set out to raise the funds necessary to support his dream, some $50,000.  In practice for Everest, ben Yehudah climbed the nearby peak of Ama Dablam, becoming only the ninth person in the world to scale the mountain that Sir Edmond Hillary called “unclimabable.”  Ben Yehudah prepared himself physically, emotionally, and psychologically over the course of four years for reaching the summit of Mt. Everest. 

There is a special bond among all those who dare to climb the world’s highest mountain.  Partly because of the peril – 200 unburied bodies litter the trail up the mountain, partly because of the stress – climbing Everest requires living in a tent for two months in minus fifty degree Celsius temperatures.  The trek up Everest is neither direct nor constant.  Climbers stay at a base camp and rest at three further camps on the way to the summit.  It was at the base camp that Ben Yehudah became friends with 46-year-old Ayden Irmak, a Turkish-born childless divorce.  He was a true adventurer, having bicycled around the world for three years.  Their common language was English.  This was Irmak’s first attempt at mountain climbing.

Traffic on the trail was brisk this past May.  At a way station 3000 feet from the summit, Ben Yehudah was delayed from making his final push to allow a group of about 100 others to dissipate, some going up, and most going down in disappointment.  But the 24-hour delay came with a worsening in the weather.  Alone save for a Sherpa guide and without food or water and with little oxygen for the last two-hour drive, Ben Yehudah described his climb as almost surreal.  In the thin air the human body begins to shut down, dizziness replaces clear vision.  On his way up, he passed two supine climbers.  Ben Yehudah checked then for a pulse.  There was none.  Then he came across his friend, Irmak.  Ben Yehudah initially thought he would race ahead to the summit and then help Irmak on his way down.  That would be impossible.  Irmak would be dead by then.  So Ben Yehudah, tantalizing close to reaching his dream, attached Irmak to his harness, and turned to head down the mountain.  In the course of his eight-hour descent, Ben Yehudah lost feeling in the fingers of his right hand – frostbite.  His oxygen mask broke and the cylinders froze.  Stranded in what climbers call the “Dead Zone,” Ben Yehudah relentlessly made his way to safety, resorting to carrying his friend on his back.

How his feelings had changed!  When he first discovered Irmak, he shook him in anguish saying: “You are killing me!” meaning, Irmak’s inexperience was costing Ben Yehudah his dream.  But later on, all Ben Yehudah could think of was the fact that Irmak was his friend and a human being and he remembered learning (Sanhedrin) that ‘He who saves a single life is considered as if he has saved the entire world.’

Both survived.  Irmak has suffered brain damage; the extent of which it will affect him remains unknown.  Ben Yehudah is recovering from frostbite and severe weight loss.   Speaking to the Jerusalem Report (July 30, 2012) about future plans, Ben Yehudah said: “There are many more summits and goals to achieve.”  He listed a possible return to Everest.  But it is doubtful that he could ever achieve the heights he attained when he surrendered his dream to save a life.

As I read this heartwarming and heartbreaking story I thought about how much better the world would be if people were willing to sacrifice their own goals for something nobler.  Of course, this thought is predicated on the idea that everyone has a goal.  Sad truth be told, there are many people – perhaps we know some? – who go through life aimlessly and purposelessly.  But of those who do have goals, whether they are articulated or not, how many would be willing to set them aside for the needs of another person or a higher cause?  How many people would surrender their own dreams considering how much they had invested in pursuing them?

It’s at this time of year that U.J.A. launches its annual campaign.  I am reminded of the story of the utlra-successful businessman living in luxury who is solicited for sizable donation.  He reacts by asking the solicitor: “Do you know how many children I have and how each of them calls on me to pay for their graduate school tuition?  Do you know how many charities ask me for cheques?  Do you know how many sick relatives I have?  And if I don’t give them a dime, why should I give to you?”   How many of us would rather be counted among the selfless rather than the selfish?

I do not know if Nadava ben Yehudah believes in God, but that does not matter in declaring his self-sacrifice to be “godly.”  He serves as a shining example.  He is indeed a great man whose praises we sing in the prospect of modeling ourselves after him.  We may not ever be called upon to risk our lives, but we may need to sacrifice our wealth for the care of aging parents or the education of our children.  We may need to surrender our dreams for the second home in favor of looking after the needy.  I pray that we, like Nadav ben Yehudah, will be up to the sacrifice.