By Larry Gordon
Earlier this week we observed Memorial Day, remembering those who lost their lives in the sad and tragic affairs that are simply referred to as “war.”
War is about military superiority over an enemy, and more often than not the force that gains the high ground is the side that ultimately dominates and wins.
Take the battle of Iwo Jima in World War II where the scene of American troops planting the flag on the mountain’s summit was made famous by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal.
The Battle of Iwo Jima took place from February through March of 1945 with the U.S. flag planted on the island’s Mount Suribachi. The U.S. military occupied the area until it was handed back to Japan in 1968.
The struggle for dominance on mountain tops continues today. Israel declared sovereignty over the Golan way back in 1981 when Menachem Begin was Prime Minister. I’ve been to the Golan at least a half-dozen times over the years, including one trip where I drove my own car on the scenic, winding ravines no more than several hundred feet from Syrian-controlled territory.
Prior to the Six Day War in 1967, Israel communities near the Golan were regularly shelled and shot at by Syrian snipers that caused deaths and injuries to Israeli civilians. Israel captured the Golan in the 1967 war and Syria has demanded it back ever since.
Though American diplomats as recent as in the Obama administration tried to get negotiations going between Israel and Syria, nothing of substance ever developed. The reality is that Israel will never surrender this vital high ground position in exchange for a signed agreement by a war criminal like Bashar Assad. So while it was no shock that President Trump recently recognized Israeli sovereignty over the mount more than a half-century after it was captured by Israel, world leaders — and in particular the brain trust at the UN — still protested the move.
The key attraction in the Golan region is Mount Hermon, which stands over 9,200 feet high and is an important strategic position for Israel as well as a world-class ski resort.
Speaking of the prominence and importance of mountains, we will be focusing our attention on Mount Sinai as we observe Shavuos next week.
It is important to note that, as we have been taught in yeshiva, Mount Sinai was one of the lower or so-called smaller mountains that dotted the desert terrain where the Torah was given to the Jewish people. Mount Sinai stands 7,497 feet high which is not exactly just a hill, but is still about 2,000 feet shorter than the Hermon.
To put that in perspective, the tallest mountain on Earth, Mount Everest in Nepal, is a bit over 29,000 feet. Following their military service in Israel, thousands of young Israelis make their way to Nepal to hike and even scale part of the great mountain that is so dominant for adventure-seekers around the world.
So this is the matter to ponder at this time of year — the grandeur and pomp that surrounded the giving of the Torah. The Torah, as we know, is G-d’s infinite and eternal wisdom in a manual that He chose to share with us. If Torah is, however, the very blueprint of creation, would it not have been fitting for the setting for this historical event to have taken place at the world’s tallest and most magnificent mountain, Everest?
Aside from the fact that Mount Sinai was along the route that was traveled from Egypt on the way to Israel, certainly the Creator of the Universe could have figured out a way to position us at Mt. Everest. We understand through the Midrash that there was a competition among area mountains to host the grand giving of the Torah, Sinai was chosen because of its modest size — relative, I suppose, to mountain heights around the world including in the Sinai desert itself.
This makes me think. If Hashem wanted Torah to be the conduit that teaches the idea of humbleness and humility why not give Torah to Klal Yisrael in a valley? Why the choice of a mountain altogether? While Torah is meant to communicate unpretentiousness and modesty, that does not mean that those values need to be accompanied by meekness or, for that matter, weakness.
In other words, we need to be humble like a small mountain but also be able to demonstrate the strength of the values attached to Torah scholarship. It was Rabbi Meir Kahane who coined the phrase in the 1970s, at the height of the popularity of his Jewish Defense League, that said, “A Jewish head, with a Jewish fist.”
No, Torah at Sinai does not advocate beating anyone up. The giving of the Torah that we will celebrate next week on Shavuos does involve climbing a mountain, though. It is the mountain of Divine and intellectual heights that transcends the physical altitude of Everest, Hermon, or Iwo Jima.
In effect and to an extent, then, we are all mountain climbers, but we do not have to travel to Nepal or even own any hiking equipment. The lessons of Mount Sinai are right here in our minds and on our lips. It requires an unusual combination of humility and strength. Chag Sameiach.