I recently was in Zimbabwe touring Victoria Falls, one of the world’s great natural wonders. Members of the group had the opportunity to take a helicopter ride to view the Falls. Such a ride was not on my bucket list, so I passed. But many members of my group took the trip, discounting any possible risk. When they returned from the flight, they all were exhilarated about taking the helicopter ride. It appealed to their sense of adventure and they felt that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that they wanted to enjoy.
On the plane ride back to Israel, I watched Everest, the dramatic true story of an ill-fated climbing expedition on the tallest of mountains. Watching it reminded me of the thirst for adventure that drives man to do dangerous things.
The film ominously begins by informing the viewer that one in four people who try to summit die in the attempt. The film then shifts to 1998 when Rob Hall, CEO of Adventure Consultants, gathers together a team to climb the mountain. Among the team members are Beck Weathers, an experienced climber, and Doug Hansen, a climber who has attempted Everest before but without success. Doug expects that this will be his last expedition so he is determined to reach the summit no matter what is his physical state.
Rob informs his climbers that writer Jon Krakauer will be joining them on the expedition. Krakauer is a celebrated journalist and book author, and his presence on the trip creates the possibility of great rewards for Rob’s company if Krakauer writes a complimentary article about it. The safety of the climb, however, is Rob’s primary concern and so he explains the risks his climbers will face on their ascent because of the altitude and freezing temperatures.
As they move from Base Camp to Camp II, Krakauer asks the members of the team why they want to summit Everest. Doug sees himself as an ordinary guy and he wants to show the world that an ordinary guy can do extraordinary things. A woman climber wants to be the first woman to climb the mountain.
As they approach the summit, some team members get sick. Beck, in particular, has vision problems because of a surgery that he experienced a year before. In spite of hardships, some climbers do make it to the top, but then bad weather sets in making the return highly problematic and extremely dangerous.
The descent down the mountain is fraught with obstacles, the main one being the lack of oxygen tanks that were supposed to be placed along the way down. Climbers become dizzy and cannot handle the rarefied air. Hypothermia sets in creating more problems. In the end, not everyone survives, and those who do are left with emotional and physical scars.
Judaism recommends a calculus for risk-taking. When risk-taking is a part of everyday life, we take risks. We take risks when we drive an automobile, when we traverse a pedestrian crosswalk, when we go for a swim in the ocean, when we walk on a broken sidewalk. That is generally considered acceptable risk. Moreover, there is the notion, expressed in the Book of Psalms, that God is watching over us and protecting us from small risks.
Furthermore, Jews have an obligation to protect themselves and others from harm. There is a commandment to build a fence around any flat roof to prevent someone from falling. Similarly, we are bound to keep our dogs on leashes so they do not frighten visitors, and we are bidden to provide a safe home environment so that people in our homes will not fall and hurt themselves. The Sages clearly forbid activities that are dangerous, such as bungy-jumping.
Judaism, however, recognizes that one may take on increased risk if the task is performed to earn a living. The key is to be sure that the risk is reasonable and does not put one’s life in danger. Indeed, the definition of an acceptable risk is not precise, and the job of the individual is to assess the danger inherent in the task and then make a decision, keeping in mind that the preservation of life is paramount.
Everest depicts men who push the envelope and take on extreme physical challenges. The ascent of Mt. Everest involves great peril and the Sages of Jewish law would probably forbid it. It simply is too risky. The minor risks involved in everyday living are acceptable; the risks involved in serious mountain climbing are not.