“Your friends are coming over for a play-date soon,” I told my five-year-old son Jeremy and two year-old daughter Hannah. They immediately bounded out the door to wait on the sidewalk for their friends.
“It’ll be a while until your friends come,” I said. “Wouldn’t you rather wait inside where you can play with your toys?”
Jeremy said he’d prefer to wait outside, and he and Hannah waited enthusiastically on the sidewalk for half an hour until their friends came. When they arrived, my kids bounced with joy.
A few days later, I attended a rabbinical conference. In the brief breaks between sessions, my colleagues and I pulled out cell phones and blackberries to check email, unable to wait through the five-minute intermissions. I wondered what happened between childhood and adulthood. How had we lost our ability to wait?
On both the secular and Jewish calendars, we are in a season of anticipation. The Hebrew month of Elul marks the time of anticipation leading up to the High Holidays. We turn our focus with heightened intensity towards our spiritual and personal growth as the holidays approach. On the secular calendar, in August and early September, we anxiously buy supplies and get ready for “back to school.” Both children and their parents look forward with a mix of excitement and nervousness for the big “first day of school.” (As a child, I was never able to sleep the night before school started and as an adult, I don’t sleep much better either on that night.) This season forces us to face the spiritual challenge of waiting.
Right now, our country also seems to be in a state of waiting for economic recovery but uncertain when it will arrive. The unemployed are searching for jobs, and many are trying to get by until times improve. When one’s livelihood is on the line, it sure is hard to wait.
Our tradition reminds us that retaining faith while waiting is one of the great tasks of life. In the Talmud, Rava (a prominent fourth century rabbi) stipulates that there are seven questions that a person is asked by God when they die about their life accomplishments – including, ‘Did you conduct your business affairs faithfully?’ ‘Did you study Torah?’ ‘Did you raise a family?’ etc.[i] These questions mostly address our actions, but one of the questions inquires of our state of mind: “Did you look forward to redemption?” In his book, The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven, Dr. Ron Wolfson understands this last question to mean: Did you retain hope even in difficult times? This question is surely one of life’s greatest struggles.
In turning our focus to our spiritual and personal growth, we may feel frustrated when we’re not yet where we long to be. When we take stock of the events of the past year, we may feel sadness at some of the losses we experienced. We may long for solutions that we haven’t yet found. At such times, our tradition reminds us that change takes time. On my summer vacation, I visited Hearst Castle which took William Hearst a lifetime of dreaming and 15 years of construction to build. Our personal goals can take just as much work. Like economic recovery, spiritual growth can’t be wished into existence; it comes in its own sweet, unpredictable time.
This month, let’s relearn from our children the art of hopeful anticipation. Let’s give our dreams a chance to unfold. They’ll be worth the wait.
[i] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a