K2, at 8,611 meters above sea level (28,251 feet), is the second-highest mountain on Earth, after Mount Everest. The mountain has a fatality rate of 29 percent. K2 had never been summited in the winter, and for good reason. Its dangers include pillars of ice that can turn into avalanches, and a notoriously deadly bottleneck just hundreds of feet below the summit. Considering the hurricane-speed winds the mountain is far more dangerous than Mount Everest. Summiting K2 in winter was considered the last great unattained achievement in mountaineering. That was before January 2021.
Among the greatest vilians in our Torah tradition are the Meraglim, the spies that investigated the Land and gave a negative report. But if we look closer at their exact words, we may wonder where exactly they went wrong. The Alexander Rebbe, the Yismach Yisroel, notes that the Meraglim first conceded that if Bnei Yisroel were worthy, it will be tovah ha’aretz m’od, a land of kedusha and tahara. However, if they were not, then Efes, ki az ha’am, there is also tumah, there are temptations, challenges. The Meraglim’s presentation essentially went like this: What if we are unworthy, what if we come up short, what if we aren’t up to the test and don’t have what it takes? There is possible reward if we go to the land, but there is also great risk. Maybe we should just stay here.
Wonders the Yismach Yisroel, why was that a miscalculation? What was wrong in that thinking? Didn’t Yaakov, the one whom Hakadosh Baruch Hu promised He would protect, also grow concerned and say he was afraid he wasn’t up to the challenge despite the promise? Did Yaakov then live in infamy for doubting Hashem? On the contrary, we consider him the bechir ha’avos, the choicest of our Patriarchs. So why do we vilify the Meraglim? When the Jewish people left Egypt, did they not express concern, resistance and doubt as they faced the sea despite Hashem’s promises? Why are they the dor dei’ah and the Meraglim’s report is considered scandalous?
Says the Alexander Rebbe, there is a fundamental difference. Yaakov was scared, he was nervous, he had doubts and despite that he plowed forward, he planned for his reunion with Esav, and he followed through, as much as he had fears. Part of him said I can’t, but he then became determined, and said to himself nevertheless, I will. When we stood at the Yam Suf, we panicked, we considered turning around, we doubted why we were ever taken out, but then we pushed ourselves and we jumped in the water anyway. Every year, on our Holiest days we invoke how Hashem remembers that reaction. We were nervous, insecure, had doubts and nevertheless Lechteich acharai, we followed Hashem anyway.
The problem with the Meraglim was not having doubts, being concerned, or having insecurities. Those are natural and normal. We all experience them; no matter how tough an exterior we portray, we all panic or feel filled with self-doubt. That was not only forgivable, it was completely understandable. What wasn’t forgivable and what we continue to suffer from until today, was that they leaned into their doubts, their voice of self-defeat of self-sabotage and instead of pushing through nonetheless, they said, that’s why we should stop here and not go forward. They gave up, they gave in, and they quit.
Calev jumps in, he hears them and interrupts as if he can’t take it anymore. Calev blurts out, let’s go up, who is in! Calev wasn’t fundamentally disagreeing with anything they said, he simply had a different conclusion. He heard them out and couldn’t contain himself, he burst out and said, “You think I am not scared, you think I have such confidence, you think I am not afraid of failure. Of course I am, but aloh na’aleh, let’s go up anyway, let’s put one foot in front of the other and push forward nonetheless.”
Last January, six climbers led by Purja, a former Nepalese soldier and British special forces operator achieved the unthinkable. They fought the winds, the conditions, the bottleneck, and countless other adversities and they reached the Summit of K2. When asked how they did it, Purja, while warming his frostbitten fingertips simply answered, by taking one step at a time.
We all have dreams and aspirations, we have a picture of who we could be, what we could accomplish, differences we could make. We envision the life we could be living and a better version of ourselves. But then the voice of Yaakov, those who stood at Yam Suf and the Meraglim kicks in and says, don’t bother starting to exercise or diet, you will never keep it up. Don’t take on the Daf, you will never finish. Who do you think you are going for the job or setting that goal, it isn’t going to happen or can’t be sustained.
The Meraglim said Lo nuchal, they looked up at that mountain, at the mission and they said, we can’t. Calev looked at the same picture, he felt the same apprehension, but he said Aloh na’aleh, we’ve got this, let’s climb, we don’t need to look any further than taking one step at a time.