The Reason for Patience

If patience is a virtue, then I tend not to feel especially virtuous.  Often I want (now) to fix (now) what's wrong in the world (now) – and rush hour traffic can seem like ironically named torture. From feeding our hunger to speaking our minds, it's a very human impulse to indulge each arising desire, to say whatever word presses to be spoken, to go where we will and do what we want. This human impulse animates evolutionary biology ("It's going to eat us!"), psychology (think the Freudian id of constant desire), and politics (have you seen a Twitter feed lately?).
 
I imagine our spiritual ancestors, described in this week's Torah portion (Beha'alotecha), on their meandering four-decade journey through the desert. A generation of wanderers knew when to go and when to stop based only on divine weather. When a divine cloud dwelled atop the Mishkan (indwelling place of holiness), the people camped; when the divine cloud lifted, the people also got up and journeyed forward (Num. 9:15-21). "Whether days or a month or a year, however long the cloud stayed," the people waited (Num. 9:22).

What kind of patience waits so faithfully? That a whole people could wait – not just individually but also as a society – puts in focus the human impulse to indulge, decide, act, do and go. After all, we're the species of instant gratification, Black Friday mall stampedes, road rage, airport security lines outbursts, and micro-aggression at supermarket check-outs.

Cultivating patience isn't about passivity (it takes active effort to cultivate patience) or slow going (though patience can mean going slow or nowhere). Rather, patience is about refining our (often inflated) sense of control. Social psychologists teach that we tend to over-estimate what we can control, and conflate what we control with who we are. Often that's why we get impatient, act out, and tend to hurt ourselves or others: we try to assert control that we don't actually have, to serve a deep-seated sense of who we think we are and what we think we need.

Social psychologists experimentally confirmed these ideas in the 1990s, but the Sforno (Ovadia ben Ya'akov, 1475-1550) wrote about them 500 years earlier. He wrote that for our wandering ancestors to await the right time (God's time) to break camp and travel, the people had to let go of control and planning. On a moment's notice, they'd need to stop and make camp; on a moment's notice, they'd need to break camp and go. They accepted that they weren't in control. By letting go of the illusion of control, together they could be led to the Land of Promise.

I'll try to remember this the next time I go nowhere quickly in rush-hour traffic, the next time my inner "Type A" lurches to control more details than are mine to control, the next time I feel like things aren't going my way. Only by letting go might I really get where I need to go.


R' David Evan Markus