middot patience torah waiting for words to unfold

waiting for words to unfold

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-listenMost civilizations have been cultures of the eye. Judaism, with its belief in the invisible God who transcends the universe, and its prohibition against visual representations of God, is supremely a civilization of the ear. . . . Hence, the key verb in Judaism is Shema, “listen.” To give dramatic force to the idea that God is heard, not seen, we cover our eyes with our hand as we say these words. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the Koren Siddur)

The first word of the first and greatest commandment is Shema, “Listen!” (Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:28). As Rabbi Sacks notes above, we are to be so intent on listening that we cover our eyes while reciting the daily Shema. Therefore, if we pay heed to the Shema, in our practice of mussar we’ll emphasize hearing, listening, over seeing. This emphasis has several ramifications. Last week, we considered one: Listening requires humility. Now we’ll see that listening also requires patience.

The distinctive phrase of the Torah is, “And God spoke.” When Moses reviews Israel’s encounter with Hashem at Mount Sinai, he says: “Then Hashem spoke to you out of the fire. The sound of words you heard, but a form you did not see; there was only a voice” (Deut. 4:12).

God speaks, and our part is to listen. God speaks his word to us over time, and we absorb this word in a life-long process that contrasts with once-for-all encounters or visions. For many of us, our walk with Messiah began with a dramatic one-time encounter, and as we continue this walk we remain open to visionary experience. But spiritual growth depends less on seeing and more upon listening, which is gradual, relational, and requires patience.

What is central to this distinction between instantaneous sight and the unfolding of sound over time is that sight is about the whole and some end that you finally see or “get,” but sound is about presence, this moment. At its very core, sound is about developing a relationship. 1

Listening implies relationship, because we listen not just to ourselves, but to someone else, to another person. I like the way that the authors above put it; “sound is about developing a relationship,” not “about having a relationship,” because relationships take time to unfold. They require patience.

We’ve seen that listening requires humility, simply because we must give our attention to another person, not to ourselves. Listening also implies patience. On the simplest level listening requires waiting for words to unfold, one by one. So the Shema weans us away from spectacular, one-time events, even one-time spiritual events, as great as they might be, and onto the daily, patient, loving pursuit of Hashem.

Now, this is paradoxical, because it sounds as if we’re the ones who need to be patient with God, when in reality he’s the one who needs to be patient with us. But that’s the point—we are to be patient because God is patient. And listening for his word, waiting for his speech to unfold, moment by moment, and day after day, instills that patience into us.




  1. Ochs and Olitzky, Jewish Spiritual Guidance. [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, ‘97]


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