from the heart of jerusalem

Don’t think it can’t happen to you


His face is a study of pure determination, seeking every depression in the rock. There is little room for mistake. One slip will result in a 3,200-foot free-fall to the valley floor below. But he is determined, and foot by foot, handhold by handhold, he inches his way up in his relentless drive to reach the top of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

El Capitan is not just another climb. It is the Everest of free-climbing, which sees climbers from all the world attempting to scale its unforgiving 90-degree face. But they all do it with ropes and spikes. Alex Honnhold, perhaps the greatest free-climber alive today, wants to do what no one has ever done: climb El Capitan with no help and no aids, just himself alone.

En route to Australia this week, I started watching the National Geographic documentary Free Solo, and was captivated. What possesses a man to take such enormous risks? There is a certain hubris that accompanies such endeavors, and yet there is also something inspiring about his determination to achieve the impossible.

At one point in the documentary, Honnhold is joined by his friend Tommy Caldwell, himself a world-class climber. Caldwell is helping Honnhold develop his strategy for free-climbing El Capitan via the Free Rider route. This involves some difficult moves, including a leap and twist across the cliff face that allows the climber to grab the only handhold available a few feet away. A number of times the documentary shows Alex practicing for his free-climb, attempting this leap while attached to ropes … and failing.

And as Caldwell describes the difficulty of the move, you begin to understand why no one has ever attempted this before.

The documentary takes a tragic turn when Caldwell falls to his death in a separate climbing incident. Alex has to deal with the loss of one of his closest friends. It becomes clear that the list of climbers who do not make it to the top is almost as long as that of the ones who do. Alex Honnhold understands that it could easily happen to him, and you get the sense that this is what drives him in his relentless training and preparation.

This week we begin the fifth and final book of the Torah, Devarim. It is the farewell soliloquy of Moshe, delivered to the second generation of the Jewish people in the fortieth year of the Exodus from Egypt. These are the children of those who experienced the miracles of the Exodus, born free in the desert and ready for a triumphant return to the land of Israel after 250 years of exile and bondage.

“These are the words that Moshe spoke to all the children of Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the desert, in the great plain opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan and Chatzerot, and Di-Zahav” (Devarim 1:1).

Rashi quotes the opinion of Rabbi Yochanan, who points out that many of these places do not exist. Rather, they are references to times the Jewish people transgressed and rebelled. Lavan, literally “white,” for example, refers to the Jews’ ingratitude and complaints about the manna (which was white). Di-Zahav, literally meaning “of gold,” refers to the sin of the Golden Calf.

Moshe, it seems, begins his farewell speech by criticizing the Jewish people for all the mistakes they have made, as a warning to avoid them and build a better future. 

It is interesting that Moshe only alludes to these transgressions. Rav Moshe Feinstein, in his Darash Moshe, points out that this was to avoid public embarrassment, as well as to allow the people to absorb the criticism. The problem here is that Moshe is speaking to the second generation, who, for the most part, did not actually commit these sins.

So why are they criticized? Why not just tell what happened and enjoin them to learn from the mistakes of those who came before?

Moshe, suggests Rav Feinstein, is targeting a subconscious character flaw: the hubris of thinking “That would never happen to me.”

The children of those who experienced the Exodus grew up on miraculous stories of the plagues, the Splitting of the Sea, the revelation at Sinai and the manna from heaven. But it must have been more painful for their parents to recount the thousands who died at the sin of the Golden Calf, or the slanderous report of the ten spies, or the seduction of the Midianite princesses.

It would be only natural for these children, now middle-aged, especially after decades in the desert living such a spiritual existence, to imagine that it could never happen to them. They could not imagine an orgy of idolatry at the foot of Sinai. They, who experienced the miracle of manna every day, would never allow themselves to complain.

There is arrogance in assuming that we would not repeat the mistakes of those who came before us. There is healthy humility in recognizing that we can all make mistakes, and that we all need to take precautions.

As I wrote this article, my wife sent me an article by a woman who had driven four of her kids to a costume store ahead of Purim. Her oldest was ten at the time. When they found a parking space, three of the kids jumped out of the car and headed towards the busy street, while ten-month-old Aviad sat quietly in his car seat with a pacifier in his mouth. Like any responsible mother, the woman jumped out of the car and auto-locked it, running towards her kids to stop them before crossing the busy street. 

They entered the costume store and began trying on costumes, oblivious to the fact that the baby was still locked in the back seat.  Fortunately, they were in a hurry. Equally fortunately, it was February and the weather was cool. It was getting dark as they headed back to the car fifteen minutes later.

As she walked back towards the car with her kids safely running ahead, the mother instinctively reached for her remote to unlock the car. When the light went on, she saw her ten-month-old baby’s head in the car seat. Describing that moment, she said it was the longest fifteen seconds of her life. She broke into a run, yelling to her children to hurry and open the door, as she prayed for her baby to be alive and healthy. They found Aviad sweating and crying, but otherwise OK.

As the realization of what could have happened sank in, she began to cry hysterically, as did her children. The child was overheated after fifteen minutes in the car in February. If it had been July, or if they had stayed away longer, it could have ended very differently.

It goes without saying that this could happen to any one of us. 

Eli Beer, the head of Hatzalah in Israel, wrote an op-ed this week in the Jerusalem Post about the tragedy of children who die at pools and beaches every year. The primary cause, as it turns out, is parents on their smartphones. A child can, Heaven forbid, drown in two inches of water, or in a barely-full bucket left unattended while cleaning the house.

The woman in the story did a lot of soul searching. She described some of the terrible responses from people telling her it happened because she is religious (she describes herself as secular), that she should be locked up, that she should not have had so many children. What incredible arrogance to tell someone that, as if we are less likely to make such a mistake based on the number of children we have or how many kids we have in the car. 

It could happen, G-d forbid, to any of us, any time and place. And that is precisely what Moshe was trying to communicate to the next generation as they prepare to enter the land of Israel: Don’t sit in judgment of your parents. If you were there, you might easily have made the same mistake. Learn from them, so that the future will be better.

This woman is a lawyer and the head of the parents’ association at her kids’ school, as responsible as it gets. But she decided something had to change. So she bought a buzzer that attaches to her car keys and to her child, which sounds an alarm as she exits the car if it is not disabled by taking the child out too.

I myself am a grandparent and have added a warning to my Waze app that sounds off when I arrive at my destination with the names of our grandchildren, asking if they are in the car. I have developed a habit of turning my head to the back seat whenever I turn my engine off. I place my bag in the back seat, too.

The next time you read or hear a terrible news story, whether it’s a fire that started from Shabbat candles or someone embezzling money, don’t jump to judge. Instead, take a moment to consider how easy it is for all of us to make innocent mistakes that lead to terrible results.

It is no accident that Moshe, described by the Torah as the most humble of men, shares this message with us. As we enter Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the day the Jewish people lost almost everything, it behooves us all to do a little soul-searching as to how we can become better and learn from the mistakes of others. A little humility is certainly in order.