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Abby Sunderland: The Torah Perspective
Over the last few days, the world was captivated with the fate of Abby Sunderland, the sixteen-year-old girl missing at sea. I actually feel a certain kinship with Abby, because we both (not together!) set out on a small boat from Marina del Ray in California. At that point, the similarity ends:
Me (age 25): I got as far as just outside the marina, whereupon the high waves of the Pacific caused my little motorboat to toss around a little, whereupon, suffering from mild hydrophobia, I began to totally freak out and headed back to shore as quickly as possible, whereupon I lay down on the ground. The girl on the boat with me, who I was dating, wondered how she could possibly marry such a guy. (Eventually she did anyway; I must have had some other redeeming moments.)
Abby (age 16): Set out solo to circumnavigate the entire world non-stop, complete with six months' worth of dehydrated food and her eleventh-grade schoolwork. She managed four months and thousands of miles before her boat was damaged and she had to be rescued.
What Abby set out to do is simply staggering, but it has launched a ferocious debate. Is she a heroic adventurer and an invaluable source of inspiration for mankind? Or is she a foolhardy fame-seeker who is needlessly costing the Australian taxpayer a lot of money?
What is the Torah perspective on this? Many years ago, I heard an idea (I think it was from Rav Yaakov Weinberg ztz"l) that since the Torah is the Source of All Existence, then if there is no word in the Torah for something, it means that the concept has no value. Thus, there is no word in the Torah for romance, fair play, or adventure, because all these concepts are meaningless from the Torah's perspective. Romance is transitory and valueless. Fair play is foolish - if there is an evil murderer in town who challenges you to a duel, shoot him in the back! And adventure likewise has no place in the Torah scale of values - one should not risk one's life just for a rush of adrenaline.
This is all well and good from the perspective of the mystical school of thought, but what about the rationalist school of thought? I do not think that Rambam would have had any place in his worldview for the idea that if the Torah does not mention a word, it means that the concept has no value. The underlying premise, that the Torah is the metaphysical source for all existence, does not exist in Rambam's thought. According to Rambam, the Torah is a document that teaches certain lessons that the Bnei Yisrael needed in order to perfect themselves.
Related to this is that R. Yehudah Ibn Tibbon, in his introduction to his translation of Chovos HaLevavos, writes that there used to be many more words of Lashon HaKodesh which were subsequently forgotten over the ages. Nowadays, all that we have are those words which are found in Tenach. It is partly for this reason, he writes, that many seforim over the ages have been written in languages other than Lashon HaKodesh. For many purposes, we just don’t have enough Lashon HaKodesh words left in our vocabulary.
I am also reminded of something that I heard from Rav Nachman Cohen, who used to be the head of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists. He once asked Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach about the Torah perspective on cloning. Rav Shlomo Zalman's response was that the Torah doesn't say anything about it either way.
So what is the Torah perspective on Abby Sunderland's adventure? As far as I can tell, there is no clear direction from the Torah at all on this topic. There are some things that we just have to figure out for ourselves.