Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by the Israeli mountaineer Nadav Ben Yehuda. It was a profoundly thought-provoking and inspirational experience.

Just under two years ago Nadav made a literally life-saving decision on the roof of the world. The 24 year-old Israeli was three hundred meters away from achieving his life’s goal of becoming the youngest Israeli to summit Everest. To reach this point, he had been training for years and had just spent the past three months on Everest and tens of thousands of dollars.

nadav ben yehuda at everest  (C) Nadav Ben Yehuda, 2014

Ben Yehuda told an enraptured audience how, with the summit literally in sight, he came across the inert form of a fellow climber, 49 year-old Aydin Irmak, a Muslim Turk, who he had befriended in the base camp.  Irmak was lying barely conscious, without gloves or oxygen in the “Death Zone” of Everest. Once he noticed that Irmak was still alive, barely, he had a “moment of truth” where he needed to ask himself the question, was he ready to push life to the edge to reach the top of the world? Or did life itself matter more?

Nadav explained that this moment was a game changer and he had to make a decision. “It was a moment of happiness, of anger, of many things together,” Ben Yehuda said. If he chose to go to the summit, a person’s life would be lost. If he chose to go down, his summit would be lost, and it would be extremely unlikely that they would make it down alive, and two peoples lives might be lost. Nadav observed:

The closer you get to the summit, you suffer more and more because you have that choice, and you hate the fact that you have that choice,” he said. “You always have a choice of your actions, there is always a choice.”

 -Nadav Ben Yehuda

Nadav chose life!

Ben Yehuda reminds us that we all have a choice of our actions. The ethical cornerstone of Judaism is “freedom of choice.” Unlike other faiths, Judaism does not hold that one is “born into sin,” or that one is predestined to be either “dammed” or “saved”. The theological cornerstone of Judaism is that one is responsible for ones own actions.  What one does in life, and how one treats other people and our planet is in our hands.

He mentioned that even in his darkest hours as he struggled down the mountain, a phenomenal feat that ultimately, after an epic 48 hour struggle to get to a helicopter evacuation spot, resulted in Aydin’s life being saved, that it was hope and the values he had been raised on, both as an Israeli and a combat soldier in a prestigious IDF unit that kept him alive.

Our religion teaches us, “Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). The sanctity of life is paramount to both the State of Israel and the IDF, whose creed is never to leave wounded behind. Ben Yehuda observed that, “A person’s life, any person’s life, is more valuable than anything.”  Tiny Israel, with all of its imperfections and surrounded by implacable foes, even in the most difficult times is always among the first to step up, from Haiti to the Philippines. Nadav reminded us all how we should value living and value each other.

 Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he saved an entire world.”

 (Sanhedrin 4:5)