[callout]This is the sermon I delivered on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of the Atonement, Judaism’s holiest day of the year. [/callout]
My youngest child recently went through a Dr. Seuss phase. Perhaps some of your kids or grandkids did so at some point as well.
One of the books she loved was that classic, often received as graduation gift—Oh, The Places You’ll Go. Her favorite two pages—I’m not kidding—were the following: “You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race/ down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace/ and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,/ headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come/ or a plane to go or the mail to come/ or the rain to go or the phone to ring/ or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No/ or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite/ or waiting around for Friday night/ or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil/ or a Better Break or a string of pearls,/or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.”
Why We Hate Waiting
I imagine she can relate to these words. Little kids always seem eager to grow up. But waiting is not just hard for kids. It’s hard for us as well. In Hebrew the word for patience is Sovlanut—it also means suffering. We try to alleviate this suffering, the waiting, by rushing ahead. By doing more, by putting pressure on ourselves.
I know I do. I hate waiting and always feel in a hurry. Not just a hurry to get my meal at a restaurant, though that is common. Not just in a hurry to get through an airport security line, though that has been helped by TSA pre-check.
After college I was in a hurry to become a rabbi. After I became a rabbi, I was in a hurry to lead my own congregation. Then I was in a hurry to write books, to continue to grow the congregation, to do more activities, programs.
Now part of this is personality, but I know I’m not alone. As a society we drink more instant coffee than at any time in American history. Our attention span—especially kids’—has shrunk significantly. We have an insatiable hunger for what’s next. Yet, perhaps we should take another look at the value of waiting. [callout]Have you ever sent an email, and then wished you’d waited a bit before sending it? Have you ever said something to a colleague, or perhaps your spouse or friend, and wished you’d waited a little longer before saying it? [/callout]
Not waiting can be dangerous. The first Yom Kippur happened when the Israelites atoned for the sin of the Golden Calf. That’s where we get “Day of Atonement.” Why did they build that calf in the first place? Because they couldn’t wait. Moses had been gone for weeks—he was atop Mount Sinai—and they grew impatient. They could not sit still. They could not wait until God and Moses had finished what they needed to do. So they built an idolatrous golden calf. They built something they thought would satisfy them. And of course, this idol failed, as it always will.
What We Really Want
We know this because we have our idols too. We imagine getting something or going somewhere, or becoming someone different or something newer and better will satisfy us. There’s an old story about a wealthy businessman visiting a caribbean village. He’s going for a morning walk and sees a fisherman tying up his boat. In the boat are several excellent yellowfin tuna. The businessman compliments him on his catch and then asks why he doesn’t go out and get more. It’s still morning. The fisherman explains that he has enough for the day. He’s going home to spend time with his family, then visit some friends, and play in his band in the evening.
The businessman proceeds to explain how he could go catch more tuna, then use the proceeds to buy a bigger boat, then catch more, build a fleet, then skip the middleman and sell directly to a processor, eventually open a canary and distribution center, set up offices in Mexico City, Los Angeles and New York and manage a large enterprise. Intrigued, the fisherman says “Okay, how long will take?”
“About ten to fifteen years,” the businessman replies. “Then when the time is right, you would IPO or sell it, and make several million dollars.” “Millions,” the fisherman explained. “Wow. Then what?” “Well then you could retire to a caribbean village, buy a boat, enjoy the weather, play in a band, hang out with your wife and friends.” The fisherman looked around. He spread his hands like a game show host and said, “You mean, like this?”
The businessman was waiting for something that was already there. Impatience can be a symptom of idolatry. We mistake what we don’t have with what we think will make us happy. No wonder we hate waiting. If our satisfaction rests at the end of it, we want to rush it along, we want to get out of the waiting room.
But the problem is not waiting. The problem is in the meaning we attach to it. We view it as a burden. Perhaps it is a blessing. When we resist waiting, we miss the natural rhythms of life. Waiting gives us the space to listen for what life is telling us, to hear an underlying melody easy to miss. Waiting also gives us the eyes to see a new kind of beauty, a hidden symmetry we easily overlook. How do we hear that melody, how do we see that symmetry, how do we change our perspective and shift it to what Spinoza called “the perspective from eternity?”
Quieting Down to Hear God’s Rhythm
First, we reread our Torah. When we read the Torah we are not looking for science. We are searching for perspective. And the Jewish perspective is that God created the world with a certain balance, with a rhythm and an order. The creation story in Genesis, for example is a poem built on rhythm and order. We have a refrain: “And it was evening, it was morning, a first day. It was evening, and it was morning, a second day” and so on.
And we have parallel phrases. We even have number patterns. The creation story pulsates with a rhythm we call life. But we have to quiet down to hear it. Then when we hear it, we embrace it. We recognize waiting, patience, is part of the rhythm of life. We were not meant to always be doing. We work, we rest. We create, we appreciate. We give, we receive. We are meant to live by a sacred rhythm.
Leo Tolstoy understood this truth better than most. His whole book War and Peace is a meditation on the underlying forces and rhythms of life. And he knew waiting is part of it. In one scene the Russian General Kutosov is facing off against Napoleon. His troops are growing exasperated. “Attack, flank him, manuever,” they plead. But Kutosov simply does nothing. He waits, he retreats a little, and then waits some more.
In contrast, Napoleon and his troops manuever endlessly. Their camp is in a state of constant frenzy. Soon, however, their supply line is overextended. Then the Russian winter kicks in. The French troops are devastated. Failing to lure Kutosov and his army into a confrontation, Napoleon is forced to withdraw. Kutosov says to his troops, “The strongest of warriors are these two: time and patience.”
When I was discussing this story with my dad, he mentioned a medical corollary to this truth. Doctors are taught the principle of “watchful waiting.” Acting too hastily can create more harm than good. For Jews Shabbat is a weekly exercise in watchful waiting. We are the patient and the doctor, stepping back and watchfully waiting so we can recognize the blessings and the beauty surrounding us. Try it. Take time for Shabbat. Pause, wait, do nothing for an evening—and see how much more you will truly get done on the other days.
Part of the power of waiting lies in its mystery. Longfellow wrote, “good things come to those who but wait.” We just don’t know—ahead of time— what those good things are and when they will arrive. But when they do, we glimpse God’s footprints. We hear rhythms hidden by the noise of busyness. My friend and teacher Rabbi Sam Karff tells a remarkable story of when this happened. A congregant called him and asked if he could call a mutual friend of theirs named Joe. Joe was preparing to go to the hospital for surgery. Joe, the friend said, wanted to talk with the rabbi but would probably not take the initiative to call. Rabbi Karff called, but no one answered.
That same day, Karff writes, “I had to conduct a funeral in our congregational cemetery. After completing the graveside service, I decided to go home via a different and purportedly shorter route. I made a wrong turn and could see the highway but not how to enter it, which for me is not unusual. After driving lost for a while, I ended up on my usual route and decided to stop at a favorite cafeteria for lunch. As I sat down with my tray and looked up, the man I had called and missed earlier that morning was standing beside me.
“Joe, aren’t you going to the hospital?” I asked.
“Yes, but I decided to eat my favorite pasta before admitting myself.”
He sat down and we talked. If I hadn’t been lost for half an hour and deviated from my daily routine, this accidental meeting would not have happened. I have never had a stronger sense of being where I was intended to be and doing what I was intended to do.”
Gollowing God’s Footprints
It was not only Rabbi Karff who saw God’s footprints at this moment. Joe did as well. Such coincidences, he remarked, are God’s way of remaining anonymous.
They are also God’s way of momentarily revealing the hidden rhythms of the universe. We may plan and prepare and try, as Rabbi Karff did, but in the end, as the Yiddish proverb says, Man plans and God laughs. In the meantime, what we must do, what makes waiting a blessing and not a burden, and what stands one of the core messages of Yom Kippur—is embrace the time to grow, to seek to become a better person, more kind and generous, more loving and devoted, more committed to tikkun olam, repairing the world, and tikkun midai, repairing ourselves.
We don’t wait to buy the next cool thing. We savor the time to become the person we are meant to be. The psychiatrist Robert Coles, whom I quoted on Rosh Hashanah morning on empathy, also wrote about this truth. “In this life we prepare for things, for moments and events and situations. . . . We worry about wrongs, think about injustices, read what Tolstoy or Ruskin . . . has to say. . . Then, all of a sudden, the issue is not whether we agree with what we have heard and read and studied. . . .
The issue is us. and what we have become. Have we become-more generous or mean-spirited, more thoughtful or slothful, merely clever or truly wise, better company or dull as dishwater. That’s always the issue, isn’t it? Us, and what we have become.” That’s the issue for us tonight: us and what we have become. And the waiting we all experience is not a time for worrying or suffering or frustration. It is a time for becoming.
When we see waiting in such a way, we see it is not the “weirdish wild useless place” Dr. Seuss imagines. It is the place for mystery, for change, for seeing God’s footprints leading us forward. Had Dr. Seuss been Jewish, I suspect he would have titled the book differently. Instead of The Places You’ll Go, it would be “the person you’ll become.” Because we can go many places—we can travel around the world—but sometimes it is when we get lost, when we miss the entrance to the highway, when we wait… and listen for the underlying melody of God’s song in this world… that we can stop waiting and know what it is to truly live.