The story is told of the Skierniewice Rebbe who was asked by one of the town’s wealthy Gevirim to speak with his daughter who had run away to a local convent with the intent of converting to Catholicism. The Rebbe immediately set out for the convent but was denied entry. He then wrote and had delivered a letter to the young woman, informing her that he would wait for two days on the corner opposite the convent, seeking only to speak with her. If by midnight of the second day she did not appear, he would understand that she had no interest in meeting with him and he would return home. And so, midnight of the second day came and went and the woman did not appear. The Rebbe decided that he would remain on the corner a third day and night. Shortly after midnight on the third day the Gevir’s daughter emerged from the convent, crossed the street and spoke at length with the Skierniewice Rebbe. She returned to the convent that night, but not for long. Several months later, the Gevir paid a personal visit to the Rebbe to inform him that his daughter was engaged to one of the finest young Torah scholars in town.
At the wedding celebration, the Rebbe went over to the Kallah and asked her a question that had preoccupied his mind since their fateful meeting on the street corner: “If you remember, I had written a note to you that I would wait for two days and nights across from the convent and that I would abandon the street corner if you didn’t show up by midnight of the second night. What made you think that I would still be waiting for you a third night?” Without hesitation, the Kallah replied: “Knowing you as I do, Rebbe, I knew that you would never give up waiting for me.”
As a number of Midrashim emphasize, Hashem intentionally chooses to destroy the world with the flood, since it takes time for the rain to develop into a catastrophic deluge and perhaps, in the time that it takes for nature to fulfill Hashem’s plan, mankind would see that this was no empty threat and they would be motivated to do Teshuvah. Yet, Noach has no interest in the lives of those beyond his immediate family. Just as the Dor HaHaflagah is driven only by their concern for the needs of the larger society, so Noach has no faith or hope that those around him are capable of changing their ways and thus he can focus only on the individual – himself and his family.
In the age of nanoseconds, we have lost the ability to wait. Whether it’s waiting 15 seconds to get onto the internet or tolerating delayed gratification of something we desire, we live in a world in which we’ve come to expect immediate responses, immediate solutions to problems, instant gratification, quick remedies and quick fixes. Our patience for “answers” is measured not in days, months or years, but in the length of a sound bite.
Judaism dictates moments and circumstances when we must act, and act quickly: we cannot stand by in the face of evil and injustice; we cannot stand by and wait helpless when there is a world that requires Tikkun; we cannot wait when we have it in our power to take history into our hands and move the process of redemption one step closer. The waters of Yam Suf, the Midrash tells us, did not part until Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped in. And, while Noach waits patiently (or fearfully) for Hashem to instruct him to leave the ark, the Midrash Tanchuma quotes Rabi Yehudah bar Ilai’s daring statement: “If I had been there I would have broken down the door and taken myself out.” How prescient that statement is in light of the 19th century Zionist movement’s bid to reclaim control over Jewish destiny and their impatience with waiting in Galut.
But our tradition also teaches us to wait and never to abandon hope: “Ki Mechakim Anachnu Lach” “We are waiting for You,” Ashkenazic Jews recite in the Shabbat and Yom Tov Shacharit Kedushah. And have we not continued to say throughout the generations and long nights of Jewish history, “..... VeAf Al Pi SheYitma’meiha, Im Kol Zeh Achakeh Lo?” Is not our God a “Keil Erech Apayim,” “a God slow to anger” who wants only for us to return to Him?
In our world of instant everything, we make snap judgments of others, we are impatient for change in others and despair of immediate transformations, often in those we love and care about most. We give up all too quickly on our children, on our spouses, on our friends, on our leaders. The art of Teshuvah is not only the ability, willingness, readiness to admit to others our shortcomings; it is not only having the inner strength to ask others for forgiveness. It is about the ability to refuse to abandon the street corner and the ability to hold fast to the hope and faith that those who have in one way or another disappointed us or who fall short of our ideals and expectations will eventually reunite with us on that corner.