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Patience

Patience

By Dr. Reuven Firestone, 
Professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam, HUC-JIR/LA

Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and other great religious traditions all teach the virtue of patience in the face of life's adversities. Patience and fortitude are prominent themes in the Bible and represent enduring traits of the religious personality. The biblical term for this is, literally, "hoping (or waiting) for God," as in the famous passage in Genesis 49:18: "I wait/hope for your deliverance, Adonai" (liyshu'atkha kiviti, Adonai). The great biblical prophets, known for their extraordinary sensitivity to life's trials and sufferings, teach not only the uncompromising need for social justice and compassion, but also the need for patience and hope in God. Micah, for example, at a time of corruption in the courts, lack of proper nutrition in the homes and even terrible cases of family violence, proclaims, "Yet I will look to Adonai, I will wait for the God who saves me; my God will hear me." This is neither a renunciation of responsibility nor a longing for otherworldly salvation. On the contrary, learning to have patience in God helps us to find the fortitude to deliver ourselves and our fellows from the evils that seem to be an inherent part of real life. There will be a day, says the prophet, when such evils will cease, and that day is sometimes described metaphorically in miraculous terms such as when lions will lie peacefully with lambs, but even that glorious day is understood biblically as a recognizable world Ñ not as a metaphysical world of the spirit that is somehow severed or removed from material life.

The sublime and magnificent artistry of biblical literature has inspired every generation, and its nature as well as its essence has been read and interpreted in various ways throughout the ages. Patience and hope for God's deliverance has taken on somewhat different meanings among the many religious communities that evolved directly or indirectly out of biblical religion. In Christianity, God's salvation has a far more otherworldly sense than in Judaism, and patience for God's salvation is more stoic and passive, based on the faith that God will bring about an entirely new world of the spirit through the messianic return of Jesus. The Christian is called upon to remember one's faith and patience in the hope of redemption [1st Thessalonians 1:3] and to suffer and even glory in suffering, for "...tribulation works patience, and patience, experience, and experience, hope" [Romans 5:1-4]. Salvation and eternal life itself is earned through patience and suffering; it is not the assertive, but rather the patiently meek who shall inherit the earth.1

Islam, too, places great emphasis on sabr, the classical qur'anic term for patience, tenacity, and resignation, for which divine reward is given.2 As in the Bible, sabr is associated with God, one of whose "ninety-nine beautiful names" is al-sabur, the Patient One, and the role of the religious Muslim is to develop one's own full sense of sabr in a variety of ways. These include patience in the task of accepting religious dogma, endurance in working to fulfill the divine law, steadfastness in refraining from forbidden acts, resignation in the face of calamity, and tolerance for one's fellow creatures, including non-Muslims.3 Islam, then, calls for patient fortitude in the obedience of God's demands while awaiting eternal reward.

Rabbinic Judaism, like its sister-monotheisms, resonates deeply with the biblical call for patience and hope in God's redemption, and the Talmud certainly extols patience as an important personal trait as well. But there is a certain edginess to rabbinic fortitude in awaiting God's redemption that is realized in a kind of un-stoic, activist impatience with the setbacks and vicissitudes of life, a greater willingness to get involved in other peoples' business because one should care about one's fellows, a readiness even to rebuke one's neighbor when it appears that a wrong may have been committed. It is a feistiness that feels sometimes like nosiness, a Jewish trait that is anything but the bland and indifferent American axiom, "I'm OK, you're OK." A classic example of this trait may be found in a talmudic story that expresses the complexity and ambivalence of the Jewish position.

The story is prefaced with the statement that the early sages were willing to go to great (and therefore commendable) extremes in order to sanctify God's name. The narrative that follows ends with a triple, bilingual play on words, where a woman's name, Matun, is also recognized as meaning "patient and moderate" in Hebrew, a trait that the main character of the story does not have, and meaning "two hundred" in Aramaic, half the sum of money that he was fined for his zealous lack of moderation.

Rav Ada bar Ahava once saw a non-Jewish woman wearing a forbidden type of clothing in the market. He thought she was a Jew, so he jumped up and tore it off of her. It turned out that she was in fact a non-Jew [who according to her custom was free to wear that type of clothing]. He was therefore fined four hundred zuz [for infringing on her freedom to dress in her ethnic custom. Later on, in the courtroom, we assume,] he asked her, "What is your name? She answered, "Matun." So he said to her, "Matun, matun, equals four hundred zuz." [Berakhot 20a]

The punch line is a brief and typically eliptic talmudic understatement. It should be translated into something like: "You are Matun; were I also matun (a bit more cautious and discreet), I would have saved twice ma'tun!" (meaning four hundred zuz)! Rav Ada's lack of discretion, even his error with its requisite punishment, is nevertheless considered by the rabbis of the Talmud to be a positive quality. Patience is indeed a noble trait, and Judaism teaches patience and forbearance, but it does so in dialectic tension with the equal Jewish expectation that we must jump up and get involved. We will inevitably err occasionally, and our error may even cause some damage to ourselves and to others, but we must, nevertheless, patiently insist on never accepting life as anything less than what it should be.