Ethical will: Patience

What do we remember of our departed loved ones?

In speaking to other mourners, I have noticed that people’s recollections of their deceased loved ones differ widely. Some people seem to remember only the most loving and tender of moments, whereas others recall a wider range of experiences. (I’ve also met widows who only spoke of dark and painful memories after their husbands passed away, even after decades of living peacefully with their spouses’ shortcomings.)

I miss Papa more than my words can express, but not all of my memories of him are positive. On one hand, I don’t want to besmirch Papa’s good name; on the other hand, I don’t think that focusing exclusively on my good memories does him any real honor.

If we’re being honest, I think all of us inevitably learn two ways from our parents – 1) we observe certain choices and ways of theirs that we hope to emulate, and 2) there are others that we consider less than ideal, which we deliberately attempt to approach differently than they did.

We empower ourselves and our children to best learn and improve ourselves by honestly reflecting upon our collective pasts.


A particular memory

After graduating from college, I lived at home for several years while my brother Eli was yet a child. One memory that has stayed with me to this day is that of babysitting him on a particular afternoon while our parents were away. The details are hazy in my mind, but I remember losing my patience with him, and I remember him bursting into tears (he was only four or five at the time).

I also remember myself immediately feeling terribly guilty and attempting to comfort the little boy, apologizing to him for my unreasonably irritable outburst. A thought followed, soon after I had calmed him down: “Oh, God. That’s the way Papa acts.”

Papa, you see, tended to be irritable and impatient with me, leading me to often approach him with hesitancy. It was a trait of his that I had never fully developed the tools to content with, other than to avoid him.


Just to be clear!

What I’ve written above bears clarification.

My Babushka (Mama’s mother), who very much adored my father (as did all of my mother’s family), no less than she might have adored her own son, put this to me in a way that rang deeply true. My Papa, as Babushka explained to me on more than one occasion, could be irascible (вспыльчивы), but he never stayed angry for long and never bore any grudges. He was irritable, yes, true, but he was also incredibly forgiving, and one of the kindest men to have ever lived.

Human beings are all so complicated, aren’t we?


Me, myself, and I

The memory I shared with you above is one of my own impatience, and it’s one which I have been trying to grow from in all the years since.

Nevertheless, the reality is that despite my best efforts to subdue this particular character trait of mine, my irritability still manages to occasionally find its way to the fore. I have been impatient at times with both my wife and my daughter, and that is not something to be proud of in the slightest. Such episodes have always left me feeling ashamed. Thus, it is my own limitations, rather than Papa’s, which have led me to write this blog post.

Reflecting upon this, I have decided to explore some traditional Jewish texts and lessons on patience and attempt to create something positive: another article for my ‘ethical will’.


Still waiting for the Messiah

The first thing that immediately strikes me regarding Jewish theology is that we Jews are still waiting for the Messiah’s arrival. Obviously, that’s not to say that all Jews believe in the Messiah, but, still, that’s the official party line: we have been praying for Redemption for thousands of years; and, even today, even with the establishment of the modern Jewish State of Israel (from which we were exiled for nearly two millennia), we continue to pray for the eventual coming of the Messianic Age.

Famously, the 12th of Maimonides’ (Spain, Egypt, 1135-1204) ‘Thirteen Principles of Faith’ is:

I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming.


The most classic example of Jewish impatience

My second thought relates to the classic Biblical case of the Jewish people’s impatience. Stories of our collective impatience abound in our TaNaKh (Jewish Bible), but most people would agree that the story of the Golden Calf represented our greatest failure.

As the story goes, the Israelites were impatient for the return of their leader Moses from Mount Sinai after he ascended to receive the Torah from God. They felt he was tarrying too long. The Torah describes this impatience as the cause of the Israelites’ unrest, which ultimately resulted in their demand for a Golden Calf.

Descending from Mount Sinai, Moses witnessed the Israelites worshipping their Golden Calf. He became enraged and hurled the Ten Commandments, which he had just received from God, down to the ground. The stone tablets shattered into fragments. God then told Moses that he intended to destroy all of the Israelites (Exodus 32):

ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה: רָאִיתִי אֶת-הָעָם הַזֶּה, וְהִנֵּה עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף הוּא. 9 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people.
י וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי, וְיִחַר-אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם; וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל. 10 Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation.’

It was only upon Moses pleading with Him that God finally relented:

יד וַיִּנָּחֶם, יְהוָה, עַל-הָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ. 14 And the LORD relented on the evil which He said He would do unto His people.

In fact, the Torah does not even suggest that God forgave the people for their impatience and lack of faith. Rather, it was Moses’ beseechment that moved Him, and the prophet’s plea to the Master of the Universe appealed only to A) God’s concern with His own reputation, and B) The promises He’d made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob).

One can only imagine how differently the Jewish story might have unfolded if the Israelite people had exhibited faith in God and His chosen messenger.


Verses on wisdom

Beyond the above “big picture” examples, the TaNaKh, as one would expect, is very direct about the virtue of patience. Such verses include the following:

Ecclesiastes 7

ח טוֹב אַחֲרִית דָּבָר, מֵרֵאשִׁיתוֹ; טוֹב אֶרֶךְ-רוּחַ, מִגְּבַהּ-רוּחַ. 8 Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof; and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.

Proverbs 14

כט אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, רַב-תְּבוּנָה; וּקְצַר-רוּחַ, מֵרִים אִוֶּלֶת. 29 [He who has] long patience is of great understanding; but [he that is] hasty of spirit exalteth folly.

Proverbs 16

לב טוֹב אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, מִגִּבּוֹר; וּמֹשֵׁל בְּרוּחוֹ, מִלֹּכֵד עִיר. 32 [He who has] long patience is better than a hero; and [better] he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.

These three verses speak to my point so I won’t belabor it any further, but a cursory review of Jewish source texts reveals others as well.


Patience… with myself

If I were to list my most self-destructive traits, impatience would rank in my Top 5. As much as I am drafting this ethical will of mine piece by piece for my daughter and future children, I find that it is also helpful to me to collect my thoughts and do some much needed introspection and self-work.

Coming from a traditional Jewish context, writing about patience is almost too easy because it stands out as a primary theme that is splattered all over the scored and stitched leather sheets of our Torah scrolls.

In this vein, I’ve been encountering a personal conflict in compiling my ethical will… some principles and values are so self-evident to me that I hesitate to write about them at all. Do I really need, I have asked myself, to write posts about being kind, being appreciative, being generous, etc.? Shouldn’t we naturally appreciate the truth and fundamentality of these values?

It seems to me that I must work on being more patient with myself.

61 thoughts on “Ethical will: Patience”

  1. the Middah of patience has just be taught incour Mussar class. Check out the Mussar institute on that subject or I can pass along some of the materials we have received.

  2. Patience is the key, thank you for your reflections. One must understand, in turn; we are still capable of re-learning the lessons of scripture and require patience above the will to learn or the words are meaningless. I could go on to elaborate, but I simply wished to comment on how thankful I am to know your words. Thank you.

  3. When it comes to our dead, our dead loved ones, the departed, we mostly remember everything, what we didn’t like, what never changed, all that remained the same, what we loved, fought and cried about, how we came together, the many passionate make-ups, how we drifted apart, how we loved so dearly. And ultimately we choose the intimate spaces over periods of time what, where and how we reveal all of these feelings and torrid passions.

    Maybe some other grievers can support me here?
    Missing, longing and yearning, make us carry that beautiful imperfect heart, remembering the overwhelmingly good things. That is one story.
    With our dead spouses, fathers and mothers, I agree that we can have flaring mornings and evenings, very differently to the moments we spend in our quiet time with our departed friends, aunts, uncles and cousins…..
    Departed parents and spouses are just special, in the dark and the light, hence i can fully appreciate the expressed thoughts about patience.

    1. Thanks, Abi.

      Of course everyone mourns and remembers differently… I know that some people who remember my Papa seem to remember, or at least say that they remember, almost entirely the good.

      Thank you;
      David

      1. I actually wanted to highlight a public figure in my country with regard to mourning two parents very differently as in the case of Zindzi Mandela. Her father was an icon in our struggle yet when people questioned her about her perceived betrayal of her father she said.
        “You only saw him on visits, he is my father, I lived with him”
        There is much to extract from her reply, but it reflects the inner conflicts she had with her father after her deaths. She hardly lived with him. She spent most of her life with her mom. And we see how differently she mourns her mother.

        1. You welcome, it could be given as a case study. All over the world her dad was revered, and I myself am deeply grateful for the candle of hope he held all the years for us out in the activists field. As long as God kept him alive we were going to carry on, because his freedom meant our freedom. His shackles would fall and the laws of apartheid would be tied up and thrown into the dungeon. Now imagine that a national or international symbol of hope could have a completely different effect at the domestic level. Yes grief is a tender matter, others may not feel that way. But like you say we all do it differently so are our stories, each with its merit. South Africa is classical case study for the griever or the mourner. Other nations are great case studies for immense happiness in a state of conflict and war. Carrying their burden differently. At the end of the day sorrow and happiness are not in competition. The Bible is a great book of grief, exposing family lines and telling it how it is. There are numerous stories of family betrayal.

  4. In terms of how we regard deceased relatives, I see it in a more secular way. Both of my own parents died in 2012, and sufficient time has passed that I can clearly see the positives and negatives. In fact, I sometimes will chat with my auntie, on the subject of how my mother could sometimes be a PITA.

    But I also think that different people react in different ways. I know somebody who will claim quite openly to have been abused as a child. For me, that would mean the end of the relationship as soon as I was able. But this person stayed in contact with their mother, who died a year ago, aged 90-something. To the end, the mother appears to have given them a hard time. This person is heartbroken, where for me, I would not shed even a single tear. It is difficult for me to empathise because, ultimately, I think they are being irrational about their grief.

    1. Actually, even though I look to Jewish texts for wisdom, I tend to see things in a secular way also… And – a lot of the people that I am thinking of who only remember the good in those whom they’ve lost – a lot of those very people are completely secular themselves!

      -David

      1. That doesn’t surprise me. I don’t really see it as a something which would be defined by a religion. I think everybody has good and bad, and by remembering both, we remember them as they were.

        I can certainly remember with my mother, she made bringing up our daughter more difficult than it might have been – because where we might say “no” to something, granny would say “yes”. So, daughter learned to bypass us.

        Pete

        1. In a lot of ways it’s hard for us that my wife’s mom lives in Russia, my mom lives in the USA, and we live in Israel… it means that raising our daughter is entirely on us. On the other hand… she’s been raised entirely the way we have chosen to raise her. There are advantages and disadvantages, I guess…

          -David

  5. I like your straightforwardness. This write-up is also well researched and nicely articulated one.

    1. Thanks, Kaushal.

      I feel like I don’t have any additional wisdom of my own to add to these particular Jewish texts… but – I do find wisdom in them, which echoes my personal experiences.

      -David

      1. Thanks David. All religious scriptures are full of wisdom and that’s why we look forward to these texts for guidance. It’s nice that you follow them in day-to-day life, which makes you humble and see the reasons. All the best 👍

  6. Even at 70, I can still be impatient. However, what has changed is that with regards to children and my grandchildren I can forgive them most things!

  7. Hear hear to what KK said… love to read your perspectives. Yes it’s tough to know how and what to share about the negatives, even or especially when our loved ones are still living. You’ve done it beautifully.

    1. Thanks so much, Lia.

      During my year of mourning for my Dad, I avoided writing almost anything in the way of criticizing him… but… I do have some criticisms and frustrations… and it feels unnatural and untrue to pretend otherwise.

      Addressing them feels to me like the best way to come to terms with them.

      All best,
      David

  8. My conclusion about human relationships is that they are a bittersweet mixture of extremes and everything in between. I welcome the reminders of scriptures and others’ writings and sayings in regards to encouraging the kinder aspects of human nature and dissuading their opposites. A very thoughtful and humble offering is your post, David.

  9. p.s. I appreciate your courage in speaking out “against” your father in a way that illuminates him as being less than a saint. Beloved-by-all and charismatic popular figures often affords good cover for all kinds of dark manifestations unknown by the idolizing fans.

  10. Wow, you have expressed your feelings beautifully ❤️ I have learnt a great deal from this and truly appreciate your honesty which you have delivered with such purity. Very well researched and articulated with much essence. Your feeling’s for your father were shown wonderfully and took us down a special journey of your personal memory lane

    Patience is a virtue, which is clearly portrayed in the wisdom of the particular Jewish texts that you shared. Something that doesn’t come easy and takes time and effort but can definitely be achieved.

    Thanks for sharing such a lovely truthful and refined piece ❤️

  11. I’m sorry, but I can find nothing about either of my parents that I could wish to emulate: brilliance wasted, and beauty abused.
    No, Sir, I’m afraid that some parents have nothing positive to honor.
    (Ok, my father died essentially homeless, and one homeless gentleman came to his funeral: no easy feat, given the location -to render homage to Dad’s kindness, even in want. I was never the object of that kindness, but I know it existed…)

      1. No worries. Sorry to intrude on this memory: I’ve very glad that your father, May his memory be for a blessing, left you with some good memories.
        Z’lBrachah

        1. David, thanks, and also, at 3 this morning it hit me that I think, in my first comment on your blog , I called you Ben, and it occurred to me last night (yes, sleep deprivation), as I was thinking of ibn Ezra, that you were ben Alexander, Z’lB, and I wanted to apologize for not paying sufficient attention earlier.
          Shira

        2. Shira, it is totally fine! When I decided to go by ‘ben Alexander’, I was well aware of the confusion that it would likely create…. it’s entirely my “fault”, as far as I am concerned, and I take no offense!

          Yours,
          David

        3. Thanks, David, and you are not at fault: those of us who know better need to take more time and care to care, rather than to rush replies and worry after our own blogs/stats/selves, and I was selfish in this, and I am ashamed.
          Thank you for not being offended. Last night I nearly got up to log on and ask you to be mechal me. May I ask your mechilah now?
          humbly,
          shira

        4. Shira,
          It’s well in advance of Y”K 5782, but I am more than happy to forgive you for your error! No need to ask me 3 times 😀
          -David

        5. Oops! Sorry, I did certainly not mean to imply that you were withholding your forgiveness! Thank you, David!
          Safe Tsnius Air Hugs, if wanted, from San Diego!
          shira

  12. I particularly appreciate the last sentence of your post ‘It seems to me that I must work on being more patient with myself.’ That is so true. I think we are all guilty of not being patient enough with ourselves. I took an art class where the instructor told us not to critique our work too harshly. He told us not to say anything to ourselves that we wouldn’t say to a child. I think this is such good advice not just for art but for anything we do in life. We do the best we can. If we haven’t got it right, we practice some more.

  13. You really hit the nail on the head with this one David! Patience is such a difficult thing to have in many situations. Mine is with drivers ahead of me! They sometimes annoy me greatly. I love your thought of inidvidual and collective patience. There are so many stories in the the Bible that show collective impatience. Well done!

  14. My parents have been gone for many many years. And I still remember my mom being funny and at times mad lol. And still can see her smile. My dad I can remember is joking and I still think about his writings he looks bed to write. Such nice memories..

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