patience and purpose

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-cyclerebuildWhen Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them . . . (Gen. 42:7).

Of all the themes that run through the story of Joseph and his brothers, one we might overlook is Joseph’s patience. I’m not thinking of the tremendous patience he needed to get through twenty years of slavery, imprisonment, and estrangement without losing hope in God, but of the patience that brought him through what might have been even tougher—the testing of his brothers when they came down to Egypt to buy food.

After twenty long years Joseph sees his brothers bowing down before him, just as in his early dream. It’s not hard to imagine how much he must have longed to reveal himself to them right then and there and start reuniting his broken family. He must have yearned even more to be reunited with his aged father and his youngest brother, Benjamin. But instead of going for immediate reconciliation, Joseph initiated a lengthy test that delayed the reunion for months or perhaps even a year or two. This testing of the brothers had a purpose—not just to see if the brothers had truly repented of what they had done to Joseph, and certainly not to allow Joseph to get some revenge for what they’d done. Rather, Joseph had a specific purpose that was essential to his major goal of restoring his family. Years earlier, the brothers had defied their father when he designated Joseph as the chosen son. Now, would they honor their father’s choice of Benjamin as the chosen one? Or would they take advantage of Joseph’s proposal to keep Benjamin as a slave and return home free from his competition for their father’s favor?

Joseph can patiently execute his complex test of his brothers and delay his happiness at reuniting with Jacob and Benjamin by keeping this larger purpose before him.

In the same way, we can build up the middah of patience by keeping the purpose of whatever we are dealing with clearly before us. The other night I was talking with a friend who does his own rebuilding and maintenance of his classic motorcycle. He described tearing the machine apart, replacing a faulty part, and putting it back together, only to discover it still didn’t work, and starting the whole process over again. I would have taken it to the bike shop at that point, but not my friend. He has the confidence that he’s going to reach the goal of a well running motorcycle, and that purpose keeps him from losing patience.

But what about things we have to endure that don’t have any apparent purpose—which is the case with most of our trials? It’s one thing to patiently repeat a mechanical repair, in which I still have some measure of control. It’s another thing to endure trials in which I don’t have any control, and which don’t have any apparent purpose at all. I’m thinking of chronic illness or infirmity, of wayward children or long-term unemployment, or of more acute challenges to our patience like a missed flight or an intractable conflict at work. That’s where the genius of mussar becomes evident. Even when our challenges have no apparent meaning, they are still exercises in deepening our character.

Nothing is meaningless in Mussar. We can be patient through what might appear the most arbitrary trials because even they serve a great purpose:

“My brothers and sisters, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:2–3).

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