December 30, 2022
As 2022 enters its final hours, my heart extends to all the people in Western NY who lost loved ones in last week’s storm. Additionally, the many people who have had travel plans upended because of the weather or cancelled flights are on my mind. I can only imagine the levels of frustration and disappointment that so many have felt in recent days. We hope that we can spend this time of year with family or friends or traveling to places we have long hoped to visit and may have even planned for some time. For many, the storm and the numerous flight cancellations have caused incredible heartache. I have heard stories of a bride not being able to get to her wedding and another of a man unable to travel from Alaska to the Pacific Northwest for heart transplant surgery. There is almost nothing we can do or say to alleviate the pain, sadness, anger, and disappointment that so many people are feeling.
Trying times are also moments when the best in humanity comes out. Looking at the scores of suitcases left at baggage claim, one woman just started going through each bag in hopes of finding a phone number on the luggage tag. She sent more than 7 text messages to people informing them where their bag was located. I feel so sorry for the thousands of people who have been stranded this week and I hope people are able to return home, see their loved ones, and recoup the funds they have had to spend because of the incredible amount of flight cancellations.
I also recognize that to move beyond a place of anger, disappointment, and frustration takes an incredible act of the soul. Maybe we realize that we have no control and we have to pivot from how we might be feeling at a given moment. We might need to go through all the emotions and hopefully come out the other side with new perspective.
For those experiencing and living through this week’s travel mishaps, you may want to save the rest of this note for another time when you are not feeling the numerous emotions.
I know that when my patience is tested, anger tends to boil up within me. Even worse is when that anger causes me to lash out. I have learned repeatedly that letting anger take control over me does not serve me well and often is detrimental to my desired outcome. I am struck by Ben Zoma’s words in the Pirke Avot when he taught, “Who is mighty? The one who overcomes the yetzer hara.” The yetzer hara is often defined as the evil urge or the inclination to do evil, but rarely does it function in how we define evil. I liken it more to the forces that drive us to behave in ways that would make us less proud. It does take a might act to overcome that urge to yell or scream when something doesn’t go our way.
When I might find myself frustrated, I would want to turn to the virtue of patience, in Hebrew, savlanut, to overcome the frustration that I feel. Regarding impatience, Alan Morinis, today’s expert in Jewish Character development called Mussar, writes, “Impatience seldom makes things happen faster or better and usually only causes us grief. It’s like an inner blaze that burns us up without giving off any warmth. That would be bad enough, but it is also a short step from impatience to rage, and we all know what harm can come to ourselves and others because of uncontrollable anger.” As I read these words, I nod my head and smile for I know them to be true and accurate.
Notably, the Hebrew word for patience, savlanut, also indicates tolerance, suffering, enduring. Morinis teaches us that the word is also the word for a porter who carries goods from one place to another. This physical understanding of the word patience teaches us that we build up the tolerance to carry a bigger load. However, there are moments that push us past what we can carry and test our tolerance level. Most of us have a weight limit that tests our threshold of what we can carry, so too, does our soul have a burden of what we can tolerate. Every experience we encounter may test that limit and the limit can grow when we properly reflect on our experience. (Just as we lift weights to build strength, we must do the same with the things that burden us.)
Morinis suggests some simple techniques to help this process move forward. First, he tells us that we simply need to name that we are feeling impatient. He says that when we do this, we open a small crack in which the light of conscience can shine. Morinis suggests two additional activities in which we might help expand our patience limits. First, when we are not being tested, he suggests we identify the times that are most likely to test our patience. In our minds, he says, we must commit to bearing the burden for at least 5 minutes. We might focus on breathing or thinking positive thoughts. Second, he suggests that when we are in the moment and we feel our patience waning, we are to fill that moment with a positive activity. He suggests singing, reviewing something we have recently learned, or resting. I would add one more possible suggestion, we might consider turning to someone we love and trust deeply, who can help us identify the moments when our patience is tested, we might give them a key word to tell us so that it could trigger the aforementioned strategies.
It takes continuous effort to do this sacred work; and it is sacred! As we enter this final Shabbat of 2022, I hope and pray can engage in the holy work of character development from a Jewish perspective. It is called Mussar. If this work interests you, I recommend two books to help you get started:
1. Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis
2. The Mussar Torah Commentary, Rabbi Barry Block, editor
I hope you all have a Happy New Year! I look forward to seeing you in 2023!
Rabbi Rick Kellner