Rabbi O’s Weekly: Shavuos 5783/2023Mount Everest vs Mount Sinai: The Pleasure Goal

What makes people do things like risking their lives to go to Nepal and climb Mount Everest? According to mountain guide Adrian Ballinger, humans just really aren’t meant to exist in such places. “Even when using bottled oxygen,” he explains, “there’s only a very few number of hours that we can actually survive up there before our bodies start to shut down. So that means if you get caught in a traffic jam above 26,000 feet … the consequences can be really severe.” 10 people have already died this year on treks to or from the summit of Mount Everest and over 300 have died since people have been chronicling it.
I suspect that those who spend considerable amounts of time, effort and money – the average price paid for permits, equipment and guides, to climb Everest is approximately $45,000 – are impelled, ultimately if subtly, by the human search for meaning.
What is the key to human motivation? Kierkegaard wrote of the “will to meaning” – the yearning to achieve some truly meaningful, ultimate goal in life. His approach was popularized by Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist Holocaust survivor whose 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning, was deemed by a Library of Congress survey to be one of the ten most influential books in the United States.
There indeed seems to be an innate human aspiration to achieve something meaningful, to aim at some larger-than-oneself accomplishment, no matter how strangely some people may define that for themselves. For one person, such meaning entails achieving a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most slices of pizza eaten while riding a unicycle and simultaneously juggling balls. For others, the grand vision is scaling of mountain, even—especially—if it entails danger.
We crave meaning because that is ultimately what gives us the most pleasure. But unlike other creatures, we have the ability to tap into a Divine soul and pursue pleasure beyond the physical—including love, meaning, sacrifice for a cause, goodness, and other positive attributes.
For example, when a couple with limited resources choose to give charity instead of using that money to go out to eat, does NOT mean they are giving up pleasure. Rather, they are trading a lower pleasure for a higher pleasure. The pleasure of helping others is, for them, perceived as having more value than going out to eat.
Humans are the only species who will trade physical pleasure for a higher spiritual pleasure and that’s because only humans have a special soul enabling us to transcend the finitude of the physical world and to strive for a higher pleasure.
If so, why is doing the right thing so often thought of as unpleasurable? The answer is because people perceive it can be uncomfortable, even painful, to make choices that deny them momentary pleasure. But they are mistaken because discomfort is actually the price we pay for pleasure. All of life’s lasting pleasures – good relationships, successful careers, the pursuit of meaning – require a lot of discomfort and effort to achieve. When an Olympic athlete pushes beyond the limits of endurance, he’s in a lot of discomfort. But he does so because he is focused on the higher pleasure; in this case, victory. So, too, with the person who runs into a flaming building to rescue someone. The pleasure of saving another human is more than remaining in comfort outside.
In the final analysis, although many aspects of the universe are beyond our understanding, the Almighty gave us a measure of intelligence and wants us to figure things out the best we can. He gave us the gift of Torah to not only give a moral compass but also to guide us on the path that will give us the most pleasure. 
Jews are not just the chosen people; we are the choosing people. While we may wish the Everest climbers the best of luck, for the next few days we’ll be focusing on a very different mountain, Mount Sinai and the choices it gives us.Read More