“Your friends are coming over for a play-date soon,” I told my 5-year-old son, Jeremy and 2-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 stay 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. During the brief breaks between sessions, my colleagues and I pulled out cell phones and BlackBerrys to check voicemail and email messages, unable to wait through the five-minute intermissions. I wondered what had happened between childhood and adulthood that caused us to lose our ability to wait?
I realized how many of my friends are in a state of waiting: One friend is recuperating from surgery and hoping to feel better in a few weeks. Another is eager to see how her new romance unfolds — to know whether a great guy she met recently will turn out to be “The One.” A jeweler friend of mine is waiting to see how the holiday shopping season goes, to know what his income will be this year.
In addition, our country seems to be in a state of anxiously waiting for economic recovery. The unemployed are searching for jobs, and many are doing their best to get by on less until times improve. When one’s livelihood is on the line, it sure is hard to wait. The holiday season forces us to face the spiritual challenge of waiting.
This week’s Torah portion tells the story of someone who mastered the art of waiting: Jacob. The parsha, called Vayetze, (and he went out), recounts Jacob’s journey to his uncle Laban’s home where he falls in love with Rachel. Jacob agreed to work for seven years to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage. Genesis recounts that these seven years of service “seemed to him but a few days, for the love he had for her.” When the wedding day finally arrived, Laban substituted his older daughter Leah for Rachel, and Jacob had to work another seven years for Rachel.
I marvel at Jacob’s spiritual fortitude. When I was engaged to the man who is now my husband, we were apart for eight months when I spent a mandatory year in Israel as part of rabbinical training. To me, those eight months felt like an eternity. How did Jacob do it?
Our tradition reminds us that retaining faith while waiting is one of life’s great tasks. In the Babylonian Talmud, Rava (a prominent 4th-century rabbi) stipulates that there are seven questions that a person is asked by God when they die — including, ”Did you conduct your business affairs faithfully?” and “Did you study Torah?” “Did you raise a family?” 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” (Jewish Lights, 2009), Dr. Ron Wolfson writes that he understands this last question to mean: Did you retain hope even in difficult times? This question is surely one of life’s greatest struggles.
When we take stock of the events of the past year, we may feel frustrated that we’re not yet where we long to be. We may long for solutions that we haven’t yet found. This week’s parsha reminds us that change takes time.
Last summer, I visited Hearst Castle, which took William Hearst a lifetime of dreaming and 15 years 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 Thanksgiving, 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.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.