Wait, Wait- What!
“Patience is a virtue,” or, as George Eliot expressed it more poetically, “The wine and the sun will make vinegar without any shouting to help them.” My children think I’m the most impatient person on the planet, but that’s only because they haven’t spent more time with my mom. My parents were visiting AZ once and we spent the day at the Boyce-Thompson Arboretum in Superior. There was an older volunteer who was both selling admission tickets and simultaneously staffing the gift shop. My mom selected a cactus arrangement in a bowl and was waiting, not patiently, for the volunteer’s attention so that she could pay for her selection. The volunteer was kindly chatting with and welcoming the visitors to the garden, while mom was doing a slow boil. After a few moments, mom left the cactus sitting on the counter and huffed off, decrying the pace at which this volunteer was operating, while proclaiming that the woman would “never make it in NYC!” I was raised by this quintessential New Yorker, a woman whose impatience is legendary. No wonder my heart sang when I read this thought in the newspaper, “Some people are natural born leaders, others just hate to wait in line!” The army is famous for making people wait- as we like to say, “Hurry up and wait!” Sometimes I think the reason God put me in the army for 35 years is to provide me with never-ending opportunities to practice the skill of waiting.
In our home, David manages all of the finances, and I remember one time I came home and sheepishly handed him my gas receipt from Costco. It was in two pieces. I was so impatient waiting for the receipt to emerge from the gas pump, that I pulled it out before it had finished printing. At least I come by my impatience honestly!
Sue Monk Kidd writes on the spirituality of waiting in her book, When the Heart Waits. She recalls seeing a monk sitting in tranquil contemplation. She approached him to ask, “How is it that you can wait so patiently in the moment? I can’t seem to get used to the idea of doing nothing.” The monk replied, “Well, there’s the problem right there, young lady. You’ve bought into the cultural myth that when you’re waiting you’re doing nothing.” He continued, “I hope you’ll hear what I’m about to tell you. I hope you’ll hear it all the way down to your toes. When you’re waiting, you’re not doing nothing. You’re doing the most important thing there is. You’re allowing your soul to grow up. If you can’t be still and wait, you can’t become what God created you to be.”
In the Kabbalistic depiction of creation is the notion of tzimtzum. God consciously withdraws energy from the universe so as not to overpower creation. Perhaps we need to do the same in creating ourselves, withdrawing some of the frenetic energy we pour into constantly moving forward and allowing for our self to emerge, for our soul to grow, out of the stillness.
Waiting, allowing your soul to grow, is a perfect metaphor for the High Holiday period, the Yamim Noraim. We give ourselves the gift of time to sit, to meditate, to contemplate, not only to pray the words of the machzor but to be open- to wait for the words to speak to us. Psalm 27, the quintessential psalm of this season, concludes with an encouragement to wait, to look towards God, to be strong and courageous, and patient! It does, indeed, take courage to risk being quiet and opening ourselves to the process of becoming.
Our Torah readings describe Abraham and Sarah waiting for the birth of Isaac, and Hagar waiting for God in the wilderness. Abraham waits for God to intervene before he sacrifices his son on the mountaintop. Channah waits to be blessed with a child, and Jonah waits to be rescued from the belly of the great fish. Jonah waits in a very dark place. His story is an inspiration to each of us who have had to suffer through the process of transition and growth. Kidd notes that our shadow side tends to grow in the dark, and warns that if “we disregard the part (of us) that’s wounded, before long we have an entire hidden orphanage inside us- a group of lost and alienated parts of the self that we’ve banished.” (Kidd, 161)
On this holiest night, at this moment, let’s open our hearts to embrace our own wounded-ness and reunite within ourselves the fullness of our own souls.
On Yom Kippur, the prophet Isaiah describes God waiting for us to embrace righteousness and loving acts of kindness- chesed. We sometimes experience God as not so patient, but, when Moses asks to encounter God’s essence, God’s own self is revealed as “erech apayim,”- abounding in patience. We who are made in the divine image can use these High Holy Days to cultivate that open-ness to waiting, to being patient with ourselves and patient with each other as we struggle to grow and change.
By analogy, Leonard Felder describes the skilled and calm demeanor of “a talented and experienced vice-president of customer service, who has to deal gently and helpfully with all sorts of irate customers who vent their pent-up frustration.” Through their calm sense of genuine caring and listening, these representatives enable customers to slow down and let go of their anger. Sometimes we ourselves are that irate customer, and we need to apply that same empathic response to soothe our own being. “Impatience,” writes Alan Morinis, “seldom makes things happen faster or better and usually only causes us grief. It’s like an inner blaze that burns us up without giving off any warmth.” He urges us to take responsibility for our own impatience, to open “the space between the match and the fuse.”
We are averse to stillness. We drown ourselves in busy-ness and, in doing so, avoid having to confront our existential anxiety. If I leave Temple Chai at the time of rush hour, I will often drive home on Shea Blvd., taking it to the Beeline Highway. Do I get home any sooner than if I sat in the bumper to bumper traffic on the 101S? Not at all. But I take comfort in the illusion of movement. It is so hard to just be, to just be fully present to the present moment, but ultimately that is all that we have.
In her book, Sue Monk Kidd tells the story of fishing with her grandfather. She got bored relatively quickly and was playing on the grass, when she noticed that grandpa had left his bait on the front seat of the truck. “Grandaddy,” she asked, “how can you fish without bait?” “Well,” he replied, “sometimes it’s not the fish I’m after, it’s the fishing.” Just the process of being here, in this sanctuary, on these Holy Days, is what we might be after- letting go of all preconceived goals and being open to the experience of waiting.
Sometimes a crisis that precipitates spiritual transformation. The Yamim Noraim are unique in that we set aside this time to allow for change outside of our daily lives, not in a moment of crisis, but in the stillness of this sanctuary where we sense the depth that flows just beneath the surface of our days. We can carry this transformation into the year ahead each week on Shabbat- a weekly reminder that “rest is just as holy as work.” (Kidd, 136)
It is hard to let go of our old selves, and that is why we must spend so much time immersed in the experience of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We are struggling to give birth to a new self, and all births are painful. They also involve much waiting! Some transformations just take time as we adjust to a new reality.
It is so much easier to cling to the familiar rather than patiently enduring the process of change. Why is it that the Torah prescribes tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of our garment? It is because the tzitzit define a boundary, a place of transition, and it is in that place and process of transition that we find holiness.
One more story- two weeks ago, my plane landed in Phoenix. I was sitting in 6B. My usual strategy is to sit as close as possible to the front of the plane, even in a middle seat, so that I can make the quickest possible escape. However, this strategy has been backfiring lately, as it puts me in the last boarding group. So, my suitcase was at row 15 and I was in despair as to how I was going to fight my way back from 6B to claim it. I asked my seatmate to let me get out the minute the seatbelt sign was turned off, so that I could try to access my bag. He said, “Well, you can do that, or you can just wait.” I looked at him in horror, total dismay. As I heard the following words come out of my mouth, I thought about my draft of this talk, and I cringed- right after these words escaped my lips, “The word wait is not in my vocabulary.” Clearly I still have a way to go to really embrace the spirituality of waiting.
I’d like to conclude with one more of Sue Monk Kidd’s insights. She writes that, “Someone brought to my attention that the words nowhere and now here have the same arrangement of letters; the letters are merely separated by a small space in the latter. Likewise, a fine space separates us from experiencing life as nowhere or now here.” (Kidd, 192) Now we are all here- may it be for blessing.
 Eliot, George, Romola, p. 533
 Kidd, Sue Monk, When the Soul Waits, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990, 22
 Felder, Leonard, Here I Am, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2011, 86
 Morinis, Alan, Everyday Holiness, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2007, 55
 ibid., 59- quoting his own teacher Rabbi Perr