On a daily basis most of us are confronted with unexpected and unplanned complications that threaten our very ability to remain focused, calm, and often even fully human in our response to such obstructions. Rightfully so, the middah of savlanut emphasizes the Godlike characteristic of personal control and long suffering. But like all middot, patience exists in a continuum that demands we maintain intentional and thoughtful balance. It is one thing to responsibly bear the burdens of momentary situations, and yet quite another to accept the unacceptable, and in fact to tolerate and even nurture evil intentions with passivity.
When Hashem visits Moses and charges him with the responsibility of leading Israel out of bondage to Pharaoh, the Holy One makes four personal pledges to assure Moses. The first of these is “v’hotsaeti etchem mitachat sivlot, I will take you out from the burdens of Egypt…” (Shemot 6:6). God’s deliverance then is realized when we are willing to leave the sovereignty and control of former oppressors and gain a new paradigm for life. The mystical book of Zohar understands the Hebrew word for burden, sivlot, which is the root of savlanut, to mean tolerance. What was the worst part of slavery? The Children of Israel became accustomed to it. So often we allow ourselves to remain in oppressive circumstances because the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t.
When the children of Israel were in the desert they complained about the conditions under which they journeyed. Under the leadership of Moses they had seen the sea split, the mountain shake, and they had never gone hungry. Yet ironically they showed little patience for the inconveniences of their journey, and cried out for the “high life” that they lived in Egypt. Discontent often blooms from the seeds of delusional tolerance for the low safe bar that we not only learn to live with, but that we often call success. Mistakenly we tolerate the intolerable and muster no patience to endure the challenges along the path to Hashem’s greater promises. Well-adjusted people are open to well-meaning correction and intense self-evaluation. There is nothing more limiting than deflection of criticism.
How many women stay in abusive relationships? How often do people accept dead end jobs with abusive bosses, failing to take steps toward change? Why do people procrastinate, avoiding important work until they assure certain failure? What possesses an alcoholic to take one more drink or a compulsive gambler to go back into a casino? The answer to all of these questions is the same. Fear blinds us to the light of God’s redemptive power. But faith can realign our priorities and allow us to show appropriate patience.
True patience is born of hope, and requires a reorientation of values. It was through the signs and wonders which accomplished the exodus from Egypt that the children of Israel came to understand that human pomp and pretension were unable to provide ultimate meaning and value. I suspect had they known that the chastisements Hashem promised were not only for the Egyptians they might never have stepped out into the waters of the Reed Sea. Israel discovered as they transversed the Sinai wilderness what most of us come to realize as we journey through life’s vicissitudes, change is difficult. But it is worth it! Be patient!