Patience As a Biblical Virtue

Vayiggash By :  Abigail Treu Posted On Dec 11, 2010 / 5771 | Torah Commentary

If patience is a virtue, it is one that we have all but lost. Living in a point-and-click world, we have grown accustomed to instant gratification. We spend our days in a rush, multitasking so as not to waste a minute and our brains—as study after study has shown—are becoming addicted to the endorphin rush of the Internet. Fast food, instant messages, “on demand” TV shows—we want what we want and we want it now.

Whether we heed the Guns N Roses lyric that claims “all we need is a little patience” or the Hindu writer Jaharam V’s admonition that “We live like comets, though we love to be stars,” one thing is clear: we need to find a way to slow down and wait.

Joseph is very good at waiting. Not in his youth, of course: the young Joseph cannot help but blurt out his dreams, no matter how offensive they might be to his listeners. With the hard knocks of living, however, he learns the art and wisdom of patience. Joseph spends 20-plus years in Egypt before reencountering his brothers; at least two of those years had been spent in prison serving time for a crime he did not commit. When his brothers unexpectedly turn up, he does not reveal himself immediately. First he waits three days before dealing with them. The plan he then concocts to test their character is long and slow, requiring him to wait even longer while they journey several times to and from Canaan, taking days if not weeks for each leg of the trip. How much easier it would have been for Joseph to have divulged his identity right away.

Bible scholar James Kugel suggests that the Joseph “character” is an archetype of the ancient Near Eastern sage. He points out that Joseph “is the only one of Israel’s ancestors who is called ‘wise’ (Gen. 41:39—this is the same word as the noun ‘sage’ in Hebrew), and throughout his whole story of ups and downs . . . Joseph reveals that cardinal sagely virtue of patience” (How to Read the Bible, p. 183). Patience is a greatly esteemed virtue in Jewish tradition. “A hot-tempered man provokes a quarrel; a patient man calms strife” (Prov. 15:18). “The end of a matter is better than the beginning of it; better a patient spirit than a haughty spirit. Don’t let your spirit be quickly vexed, for vexation abides in the breast of fools” (Eccles. 7:8–9). It is one of the esteemed character traits acquired through Torah study, extolled in Pirkei Avot 6:7.

In the stream of Jewish practice developed in the 19th century and generally known as mussar, patience is one of the key character traits we are to focus on in our spiritual, ethical, and emotional development. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Satanov defines the trait of savlanut, patience, as “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” (As cited by Rabbi Ira Stone,

This definition suits the Joseph story, and our own condition, well. Having patience means not only the ability to slow down in our fast-paced world, but also controlling our impulse to grow frustrated when things are not moving quickly enough or going our way. The power of Joseph’s example is that he is overcome with emotion throughout. Time and again he steps away from his brothers to weep alone. He does not give in, however, to his emotional impulses. He is comfortable waiting for the right moment and carefully cultivates his own comportment along with a relationship with his brothers that is poised to succeed.

How does Joseph manage to maintain such savlanut, such patience—and how too can we manage to cultivate the trait in our own lives?

At the climax of the parashah—the moment when Joseph finally reveals himself—he shares with his brothers the secret. It is offered as comfort to them, and reads as a sort of moral-of-the-story to us: “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt! Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you” (Gen. 45:5). To return to Kugel: “An ancient Near Eastern sage was patient precisely because he believed that everything in this world happens according to the divine plan; things will always, therefore, turn out for the best, no matter how bad they may appear now” (Kugel, op cit).

Faith, then, lies at the core of Joseph’s patience. For the more traditionally minded (theologically speaking), Joseph’s words confirm what we sense naturally in our hearts. God is good and God has a good plan that is unfolding even when we cannot see it. For the less traditionally minded (theologically speaking), as well as agnostics and atheists, I would rephrase Joseph’s point to make it a bit more universal: we are to maintain a solid faith that everything will work out okay in the end. As he sends his brothers off to fetch Jacob from Canaan, he admonishes: “Don’t be quarrelsome on the way!” (Gen. 45:24). Rashi understands this to mean that as we go about, we should not bicker over halakhah, politics, or the past. While going about the business of life, Joseph teaches his brothers and us, remain calm if—or even when—”the road become(s) unsteady for you” (Rashi ad loc and BT Ta’anit 10b).

Underneath patience lies hope. In fact, kivah in Hebrew means both wait and hope, as in “I wait/hope for your deliverance, O Lord!” (“lishu’atkha kiviti Adonai”) of Genesis 49:18. Rabbi Reuven Firestone argues that “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” (HUC Chronicle, #60, 2002). We find a way to trust in a positive outcome, to train ourselves as did Joseph to see what good might come out of a difficult or frustrating situation. We must cultivate, as did Joseph, the ability to keep some of our dreams to ourselves for a while, to step away when our emotions are overwhelming so that we can deal calmly and respectfully with those around us. We must take the mantra of the month of Elul and the High Holiday period, Psalm 27, to heart and learn to murmur under our breaths in even our most trying moments: “Mine is the faith that I shall surely see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. Hope in the Lord and be strong. Take courage, hope in the Lord.”

If only I could remember that the next time I’m stuck in traffic.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.