| Second Thoughts |

A Tale of Two Mountains

Two great challenges, two tests to discover who you are


wo gripping items:

  1. a) In the past several months, 11 people have died trying to reach the summit of Mount Everest. From 1922 to 2018, 300 deaths were recorded there. And yet, hundreds of people set out for the summit every year, fully aware that some might never come back.
  2. b) The Talmud relates (Succah 52a): At the end of days, the Holy One Blessed Be He will bring forward the Evil Inclination and will slaughter it in front of both the righteous and the evildoers. To the righteous, the Evil Inclination will seem like a high mountain; to the evildoers, he will seem like a single strand of hair. The righteous will weep and the evildoers will weep. The righteous will weep (with joy: Maharsha) saying, “How were we able to overcome such a high mountain?” The evildoers will weep, saying, “How were we not able to overcome a single strand of hair?

Life is filled with mountains that appear insurmountable. There are the physical mountains like Everest, and there are the spiritual mountains like the Days of Awe. When a man stands before Everest, it is clearly awe inspiring. Many give up before they even begin. But others persist, struggle mightily, and manage to reach the summit.

When a Jew stands before the Yamim Noraim, the demands — teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah — seem fully insurmountable. Many give up before they even begin. But others persist, struggle mightily, and manage to reach the summit.

Two mountains: Each presents its own challenge; each requires inner strength and resolve, but they are not alike in their challenges. For Everest, the first 50 yards are the easiest, the final 50 yards, the most difficult. For the spiritual mountain, it is just the reverse: the first 50 yards — just making a beginning — are the most difficult, the final 50 yards, the easiest.

On Everest, every step forward is more difficult than the last. In the Yamim Noraim, every step forward is easier than the last.

There are other differences: For Everest, one must take along proper and carefully selected equipment. For the spiritual ascent, one needs no equipment except a pure and willing heart.

For Everest, it is mandatory to bring along an experienced and trustworthy guide. For the spiritual mountain, the Divine Guide brings us along, encourages us, leads us, and protects us on the climb.

At Everest, success is measured by reaching the summit. The intermediate steps mean nothing; if you do not reach the summit, you have failed in your mission, no matter how you tried. At the spiritual mountain, success is measured by the sincere effort. Every step forward is a success, as long as you make the effort. Even if you do not come close to the summit, you have succeeded. Lo alecha hamelachah ligmor, say the Sages in Avos 2:21: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task.”

At Everest, you risk life and limb with every step forward. In the spiritual climb, you risk nothing; instead, with every step forward you gain new vigor, new understanding, new willpower.

Mount Everest and the Yamim Noraim we just experienced: two great challenges, two tests to discover who you are. In the one, you risk your life; in the other, you gain new life as long as you make the effort.

When the climb is over, you look back and wonder how you were able to achieve what you achieved. Part of you overestimated the challenge, part of you underestimated it. But you persisted, and you conquered what needed to be conquered.

For what needed to be conquered was yourself. For the yetzer hara is both an Everest and a single thread of hair. If you challenge it and confront it, it gives way like a thread of hair. But if you allow it to intimidate you, the thread of hair becomes like a fearful mountain that cannot possibly be overcome.

As we lived through these Yamim Noraim, the challenges of teshuvah, of effecting a positive change in our behavior, seemed overwhelming. How can I withstand the temptation to stretch the truth, or to cut corners in my religious life, or the allure of offending others, or of spreading and listening to gossip? I am not a bad person, but I am unable to overcome such temptations when they are set before me.

We need only remember the lesson of the Two Mountains. Take the first step, make a beginning. After that, your Divine Guide takes you by the hand, and then the insurmountable mountain is reduced to a single thread of hair. And, having taken the first step, you will weep for joy at what you were able to accomplish.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 782.

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