I know people who are very busy in their professional careers, but who always find time for family, and especially their children. One rabbi friend of mine who works for a number of companies in the pension fund industry in order to make a living for his large family always finds time to study Torah with his children. It is a weekly commitment that he rarely misses, and I admire him greatly. That kind of devotion to family is absent in the life of Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer in Seven Years in Tibet, a picturesque drama that chronicles his life before, during, and after World War II.
Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer attempts to climb Nanga Parbat in British India to gain glory for his country and for himself. So driven is he to accomplish this goal that he leaves his wife, Ingrid, who is expecting their first child. Harrer is self-centered and cannot recognize the stresses under which his wife functions with a husband who is away for long stretches of time and is emotionally distant from her even when he is at home.
During their climb, World War II breaks out and Harrer and his fellow climbers are arrested and sent to a P.O.W. camp where they languish for several years, during which Harrer’s son, Rolf, is born. Harrer finally escapes and finds refuge in Lhasa, the holy city of Tibetan monks. There he befriends the very young Dalai Lama, whose curiosity about the world is satiated by Harrer’s worldly knowledge.
Although young is years, the Dalai Lama is old in wisdom, and Harrer learns from him as much if not more than what he teaches him. A wise Tibetan points out to Harrer the difference between his life’s philosophy and the Tibetan way of life: “You admire the man who pushes his way to the top in any walk of life, while we admire the man who abandons his ego.” Harrer’s ego is large and it takes much time for him to understand the importance of humility in shaping one’s character.
During Harrer’s long hiatus away from family, Ingrid sends him divorce papers, informing him of her desire to re-marry. The finality of the letter and his own increasing desire to see his son begin a process of repentance for Harrer. He becomes less self-centered and begins to think of how his actions are perceived by others. He is also troubled by the insensitivity he showed towards the suffering of his wife, who he essentially abandoned at a critical moment in her life.
The Tibetan experience teaches Harrer about the significance of family, which in Judaism is a primary value. Rabbi David Rosen connects the importance of family to the value of sanctity, a central theme in Judaism. Rosen writes: “It is thus not without significance that the Hebrew word for Jewish marriage (Kiddushin) means “holiness or sanctification”. Not only is the relationship of marital commitment itself seen as holy – indeed it is seen as the ideal state of adult life – but the family as the central institution and focus of Jewish life, is the key to the realization of the people’s raison d’etre, to be a holy nation.”
Rosen also notes that a hallmark of the family is the mutual dependency of husband and wife. If one partner is arrogant, that partner deludes himself into thinking he is self-sufficient, not needing anyone else. This describes the relationship between Harrer and his long-suffering wife Ingrid.
The Jewish marriage contract, the Ketubah, perhaps says it best. The language of the document indicates that the husband is responsible for his wife’s happiness. The Sages of the Talmud tell us that a man should love his wife as himself and honor her more than himself. Moreover, the Talmud states: “there is no blessing in one’s home without the wife’s honor.”
Heinrich Harrer comes to this realization too late to salvage his own marriage, but his Tibetan experience makes him a wiser man now ready to devote time to family. His encounter with the Dalai Lama has forever changed him. He is now obsessed with being a good father and does his utmost to share his son’s journey into manhood.