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Ki Tissa and the Power of Patience

What is the greatest sin ever recorded? According to the tradition it is the building of the Golden Calf, a story recorded in this week’s portion. The root of this sin is impatience. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’” (Exodus 32)

If we read even more of the story we discover that it is not only the people, but also Moses, and even God who stand guilty of impatience. If we are honest with ourselves we might also realize that many of our own problems, as well as the vociferousness of our current political debates, are caused by this very same flaw.

The Hebrew word for patience is savlanut. The root of this word is saval, meaning to bear a heavy load or even to suffer. There is much to learn from the Hebrew’s root. Patience does involve great work and at times, even suffering. Waiting is not easy. To quell our desire for satisfaction, and the realization of our goals (both personal and political), sometimes requires pain and sacrifice. It means putting aside my own wishes for another, for the sake of others. It means putting aside our own goals for the sake of the community. This is why the Mussar masters suggested that patience is the most difficult of middot (character traits) to master. Inculcating our lives with more patience is the work we must do. We must train our souls with patience.

Our lives need it. Our community needs it. Our country certainly needs more of it.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin wrote in Heshbon HaNefesh (An Accounting of the Soul): “When something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, do not aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief.” Often we compound our difficulties through impatience. We cry and scream about things we have no control to change. The Mussar tradition also imagined that training our souls is sometimes violent and painful. Like Mount Sinai where God revealed the Torah with thunder and lightning, we learn, we gain knowledge when our character is tested.

Again Menachem Mendel writes: “Woe to the pampered man [or woman] who has never been trained to be patient. Either today or in the future, he is destined to sip from the cup of affliction.” We are raising a generation of children (and perhaps politicians) who have never confronted strife and despair. It is inevitable. We will face difficulties. We will be faced with situations beyond our control. We will be forced into discussions and debates with those who hold contrary beliefs, who uphold different commitments from our own. And so we must train ourselves to be patient.

This is not the same as accepting fate. A dose of impatience leveled against the world’s problems is noble and good. This is why I find renewed faith in the revolutionary zeal of our youth who continue the dream of righting wrongs and healing the world. Judaism believes that we can shape our destinies.

We cannot always control every outcome.

We must be patient with those things we cannot control. Forgive the mundane example but it serves no one to scream at a waiter or yell at other drivers. It will not move traffic faster or cause him to bring your dinner any quicker. Accept what cannot be changed. Rise up against what must be corrected. Beware of confusing the two.

Beware of the impatient word.

The Torah reminds us. Had the people exercised even the smallest dose of patience they would not have committed the greatest of sins.

If we are to rediscover renewed faith in our political process, a system built on compromise, a system that demands that we exhibit patience with those holding divergent views from our own, we must relearn the value of patience.

Perhaps we might then steer wide of sin.