My granddaughter Orli recently joined a Little League team for special needs kids and I went to the opening game. When her team got up to bat, most of the kids used a batting tee, but
one of her teammates opted to have the coach pitch the ball to him. As the batter missed ball after ball, and the pace of the game slowed to a crawl, no one complained. Finally, after about seventeen strikes, he hit a grounder, headed off for first base, and everyone cheered—both teams and the parents sitting around to watch. It was easy to be patient because we knew that this game wasn’t about sizzling action and gripping entertainment, but about giving disabled kids a chance to play ball.
Patience comes a lot more easily when we look beyond immediate circumstances to see a bigger purpose. As we’re approaching Passover this year and getting ready to recount our deliverance from Egypt, we can imagine that patience was a big part of that story too. After all, the Lord had told Abraham that his offspring would be aliens in a foreign land and oppressed for 400 years (Gen. 15:13), and that the fourth generation would return to the Promised Land (Gen. 15:16). Whatever you do to resolve the discrepancy between those two time frames—400 years and four generations—it’s clear that our ancestors had been slaves in Egypt long enough to test anyone’s patience.
And it happened when a long time had passed that the king of Egypt died, and the Israelites groaned from the bondage and cried out, and their plea from the bondage went up to God. And God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the Israelites, and God knew. (Ex. 2:23–25, Robert Alter trans., emphasis mine)
Did the Israelites only start groaning after a long time had passed? What had enabled them to endure generations of bondage with at least some degree of patience? When God sends Moses to deliver his people, Moses says that the people will question his authority and ask who sent him. “[If] they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Ex. 3:13). God tells him to say, “The Lord God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, sent me to you” (Ex. 3:15). Apparently the Israelites still remembered the God of their ancestors after generations of bondage, and perhaps that’s what enabled them to endure.
In contrast, after Moses failed in his initial attempt at deliverance, the people lost patience and stopped listening to him “out of shortness of breath and hard bondage” (Ex. 6:9). Had they shifted their focus from the God of their ancestors onto Moses himself? Had the longing for deliverance become activated by Moses’ appearance so that they couldn’t go back to their old long-term patience? We don’t know what changed exactly, but this verse is a warning that patience is a delicate virtue. When we get our eyes off the big picture, off the simple fact of God with us in whatever we have to endure, we can lose our patience in an instant.
This year, as we retell the story of our departure from Egypt, we need to remember the part that patience plays in the whole drama. Patience comes from recognizing that God is with us, or as Exodus puts it, God knows, whether it’s obvious or not. If we know that God knows what we’re going through, we don’t need to know all the reasons why we have to go through it. That realization equips us for whatever might require our patience on the path ahead.
For more on Mussar—Jewish ethical practice—go to http://www.rivertonmussar.org. For the next few weeks I’ll be blogging on Mussar in connection with Passover, counting the Omer, and Shavuot.