Mussar: Patience

My friends Rabbi Jason and Malkah Forbes have just launched a new website, rivertonmussar.org, that deals with Mussar, the Jewish discipline of ethical character development. I recommend it highly, and will be contributing commentaries on the various character traits or middot, as they’re termed in Hebrew. Here’s my piece for this week, on patience.

I was recently stuck in line at the car rental counter behind a guy who appeared to have never rented a car before in his life. I’d say he was a classic nudnik, but I don’t think I should call someone a name in an article about ethics. With shorts a bit too tight and hitched up a bit too high upon his potbelly, and close-cropped gray hair over a worried brow, he questioned every line in the rental agreement.

“Why do I have to turn the car in at 9:00 if my flight doesn’t depart until 11:30?”

“How come I have to initial this thing about insurance?”

“Is there even a bottom line on this deal?”

 “$146.91!? How’d we get to $146.91?”

“Where does it say what kind of car I get anyway?”

Through it all, the agent maintained such a courteous manner that I was more impressed with her patience than with the annoyance capacity of my fellow customer. Here was patience in the passive sense, which we might term forbearance.

Yeshua exemplified forbearance when he submitted to his unjust trial and execution without a word. “But when Yeshua was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?’ But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed” (Matt. 27:12-14). Indeed, patience in the face of hostility can be amazing. God constantly extends this sort of patience to humankind, and calls upon us to emulate it in following Yeshua.

But patience has a more active component as well—persistence. Yeshua taught about this sort of patience in his story of the annoying man who banged on his friend’s door at midnight to borrow three loaves of bread. “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Luke 11:8-9). Persistence is patience with feet on it.

Real life requires patience in both the passive and active tense, both forbearance and persistence, held in balance. Forbearance can become mere passivity or resignation, and lead to loss of hope. Persistence can become obsession. Alan Morinis points out that, “The real root of impatience is the erroneous belief that we are the masters of our fates” (Patience. Mussar program #8, © 2007 JewishPathways.com). If this is so, we cultivate patience not by passivity, but by actively counting on God and his control of all things, despite the frustrations and obstacles that life will inevitably present to us. We patiently endure, or we patiently press on, knowing that God holds the outcome in his hand. 

 (All Scripture references are from the NRSV.)

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