‘Perfecting’ with Patience (& Marshmallows)

In unsettling times and chapters of struggle, accepted wisdom reminds us to stoke our patience. That—as one of the 3 P’s of emotional resilience outlines—permanence is a myth, and we need only be faithful in time’s passing to witness changes in the tide.

Yet, as my own life has revealed its unique moments of meandering and implosion, I have been dismayed by the disparity between the degree to which I’m meant to value patience and the degree to which I’ve successfully cultivated it in myself.

It is often at this time of year that I feel most preoccupied by and drawn to the idea of patience as a virtue—probably because it feels so obviously incongruous with the pace of these Days of Awe.

This is a feverish season. Never a slow crawl, but always a mad dash—a frenetic and hysterical period, characterized by manic behaviors and anxiety, however well-intentioned our efforts may be. It is a stretch during which we starve ourselves of sleep for the sake of reciting slichot late into the night, one during which we frantically produce lists of bad habits and missed opportunities, one during which we desperately reflect, devote a pocket of time to apology phone calls, and panic about judgment. Last year, I finished composing my list of regrets and resolutions as my family parked its car outside of the synagogue, just minutes before sunset on Rosh Hashanah eve.

And, though practicing patience doesn’t seem to be encouraged as a necessary exercise in the course of perfecting our characters and requesting forgiveness, on an intuitive level, I feel as though it is paramount in this process. That the cultivation of patience may be a goal—or even the goal—of this season’s work.

And perhaps that is why, however modest and subtle its presence in the text may be, patience is the centerpiece woven into the Biblical narrative to which we return every Rosh Hashanah.

* * *

The first day’s Torah portion has always felt like mere prelude to the second’s, which features the Binding of Isaac and serves as the entire holiday’s narrative fixture. The importance of the event is reaffirmed by its prominence in the Zichronot (Memories) section of the liturgy, when penitents beseech God with the words, “And may the merit of Abraham’s supreme faith in the Binding of Isaac lead thee to restrain thine anger from us.”

Yet, it is in the prelude—in the first day’s reading—that I find some of our most compelling character modeling for this time of year and discern the primacy of patience.

Interestingly, though we ask God to remember Abraham’s actions during the Akedah (The Binding of Isaac), the Biblical text makes reference to God’s having remembered someone else—the one person not at all involved in Isaac’s sacrifice—his mother, Sarah. And with this remembrance, our first-day’s Torah portion begins.

And the Lord remembered Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did unto Sarah as He had spoken. And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. -Genesis 21:1-2

What’s particularly striking about these verses is the three times the text references God’s making good on his promises. The Lord remembered Sarah “as He has said,” and did unto Sarah “as He had spoken,” and Sarah conceived “at the set time of which God had spoken.”

And it’s true—in the preceding chapters 17 and 18, God directly promises Isaac’s birth and then reaffirms that promise through His messengers. After the passing of an entire year and the accounting of the two tangential narratives of Lot and Abimelech, God remembers Sarah and she bears a child.

So, perhaps, what was demonstrated by our forefather and mother before the climactic Akedah story unfolds—what was on display throughout these winding and seemingly precursory chapters—is the beautiful and critical cultivation of the sort of patience that necessarily precedes a perfect faith.

* * *

In the early 1970s, Stanford University’s professor of psychology, Walter Mischel, conducted  delayed gratification trials, now commonly referred to as “Marshmallow Experiments.”

During testing, a young child is secluded in a room and seated at a table, a lone marshmallow placed before him. The attending researcher tells the child that she is going to exit the room and instructs him or her to refrain from eating the marshmallow in the interim. If the child waits patiently, he or she is rewarded with a second marshmallow upon the researcher’s return. If the child is unsuccessful in staving off cravings, no second marshmallow is awarded.

Since the experiment was published in 1972, dozens of follow-up studies have revealed interesting disparities between children who are able to delay gratification and those who aren’t, and early displays of self-restraint have been linked to later successes in life.

Among the most interesting follow-up studies was one that was conducted in order to determine if greater patience was inherent in some children or if it was a trait that could be engendered.

Researchers at the University of Rochester recreated the experiment, making one important modification. The children were split into two groups, one that was exposed to a series of reliable experiences prior to being tested with the marshmallow and the other, which was first exposed to unreliable experiences before being asked to patiently wait to eat their precious marshmallows. These reliability experiences were manifest in scenarios in which, for example, the children were given some crayons and told that the researcher would soon return with more, but only returned, as promised, to the first group and not the second. As expected, when the marshmallow test was conducted, the children who had first been exposed to the unreliable researcher who neglected to return with more crayons were much less inclined to believe the researcher would return with a second marshmallow, and, consequently, were unable to patiently wait to eat their treats. The children in the other group, however, who were first exposed to a reliable researcher, were successfully trained to believe that it was profitable and worthwhile to remain patient.

In other words, when patience is rewarded, it grows into belief. When others make good on their promises to us, it is easier for us to put our faith in them.

* * *

Returning with this lens to our Torah portion, important subtleties emerge. We may conclude that the three instances in which emphasis is placed on God’s fulfillment of promises made to Sarah and Abraham are not mere factual references to prior conversations, but are indications that a spiritual transformation was made possible in our forebears. Over time, and in their old age, Sarah and Abraham were exercising patience with respect to the promise that they would have a child, and, when that patience was rewarded in Isaac’s birth, their faith in God could deepen. (This may even newly illuminate the second day’s Torah portion, featuring the Akedah narrative, given that Abraham’s faith was carefully cultivated in advance of that traumatic test.)

* * *

But, beautiful though this patience-building process may be, what happens when it isn’t rewarded? What if, as in our case, the researcher—or God—does not “return” to us or make direct and apparent contact like He did with our biblical ancestors? What reward is there for us with an absent, invisible or conspicuously uncommunicative researcher? How are we meant to cultivate patience in ourselves and achieve greater or more perfect faith if the scientifically proven method of doing so is unavailable to us?

* * *

Generally, people perceive patience as a passive capacity. As the root of the Hebrew word for patience, savlanut, indicates—the root being saval—there is suffering involved, as if the patient person is doing little else but impotently withstanding and enduring the deliberate marching of time.

Yet, if, as my intuition tells me, patience plays a part in our journey towards judgment day—a journey characterized by significant changes and the austerity of our confessional liturgical resolutions—it must surely bear a more active component.

* * *

Paulo Freire’s 1968 text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, makes the case for pedagogy to be dialogical and to conceive of the learner as an equal collaborator rather than relying on, what he calls, “the banking model of education,” characterized by the unidirectional deposit of knowledge into the learner.

Explicating the differences between men and animals, Freire writes:

I shall start by reaffirming that humankind, as beings of the praxis, differ from animals, which are beings of pure activity. Animals do not consider the world; they are immersed in it. In contrast, human beings emerge from the world, objectify it, and in so doing can understand it and transform it with their labor (125)…Let me emphasize that my defense of the praxis implies no dichotomy by which this praxis could be divided into a prior stage of reflection and a subsequent stage of action. Action and reflection occur simultaneously. A critical analysis of reality may, however, reveal that a particular form of action is impossible or inappropriate at the present time. Those who through reflection perceive the infeasibility or inappropriateness of one or another form of action (which should accordingly be postponed or substituted) cannot thereby be accused of inaction. Critical reflection is also action (128).

In other less convoluted terms, Freire is arguing that, as beings of praxis, humans are always simultaneously acting and reflecting. And, though there may be actions that we cannot take or achieve at certain points in time or in the course of our development, we must not label our pausing as inaction. It is, instead, reflection, and it is the less evident but no less critical, vital or energetic partner of action.

* * *

When I read through the viduy (Prayer of Confession) each year, I feel tremendously disappointed in myself. Long lists of misdeeds repeat and repeat, and my returning to them each year repeats and repeats, seemingly indicating that my attempts at improvement are futile. I am reminded, each year, that I am imperfect and that the perfection of my character is painfully elusive. I have not made good on my promises to improve.

And yet, every year, I return to Yom Kippur services. Every year, I return to the synagogue’s sanctuary. Imperfect, surely. But present. Each and every year.

* * *

Sometimes, I wonder about the marshmallow test. I wonder what might have happened if the researchers at Rochester University had made one more modification to their experiment. What if, for both groups of children, the researcher did return, but did so empty handed, without the promised crayons and second marshmallow? Would that have been enough to encourage continued patience? Would it have been enough to elicit some degree of faith?

* * *

Our faith is bound to be imperfect, or, at the very least, less perfect than Abraham’s because we do not ever meet God as researcher. We do not experience returns on our patience that emanate from a visible God.

But, acting as our own researchers, even if unable to make good on annual promises of complete character refinement, we can be present. In the fulfilled promise of return, a bit of patience with and within ourselves can be cultivated.

What’s more, perfection is, in essence, the enemy of patience because patience accommodates the imperfect in-between. Patience accommodates the messy, unfinished and liminal spaces within the world and takes root in the stretches of uncertainty and incompleteness that characterize our lives.

Perhaps, then, perfection and perfect faith should remain in our lofty periphery. Perhaps they are depicted in the stories we read each year, but not the ones we live. Instead, we might aim for some semblance of patience. Perhaps, we are meant to turn inward and begin a dialogue with the researcher in each of us who returns either empty-handed or without flawlessly fulfilled promises.

* * *

In the Zichronot (Remembrances) section of the Rosh Hashanah mussaf prayer, the root zachar—meaning, remember—appears 29 times. The thrust of this section is well encapsulated by this excerpted description of God’s capacity to recall His people and their deeds:

And I shall remember unto them the covenant which I made with their ancients, even as I have brought them forth from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations—I, the Eternal; for thou dost remember everything though by mortals forgotten; yes, thou art the Eternal before whom naught is forgotten. And remember in mercy the Binding of Isaac for the merit of his descendants. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who rememberest the covenant made with the ancient ones.

When examined at close range, it is striking that the trait for which we praise God is not His reliability in fulfilling His covenant but, instead, the fact that He remembered it. God did not just grant Sarah a pregnancy. First, He remembered her. Just as God did not simply stop the waters of the flood, but, first, remembered Noah. Just as he remembered Rachel and Hannah. Just as he remembers Ephraim.

If, as we’re often told, we’re meant to live our lives b’tzelem elokim—in the image of God—perhaps we should focus on being the kinds of people whose first goal—even if not singular—is to remember. In our case, to remember merely to return to the room. A room where we may begin the meaningful, if frustrating, conversation about the things the researcher in each of us bears in hand upon return. Over time, we will grow patient with ourselves, and our faith—even if imperfect—will deepen.

* * *

Fragments of Psalm 137, the famed “By the rivers of Babylon,” which we recite on days on which we do not sing Shir Hama’alot and on the Ninth of Av, appear in the repetition of the Rosh Hashanah Amidah prayer and in the groom’s affirmations under the wedding canopy, and they comprise a portion of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s Tikkun HaKlali, a repentance prayer for all manner of sins.

A somber text, the Psalm explores the pain of Exile, and asks the question:

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

The lines that follow—the most famous of the psalm—read as follows:

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not.

We are there—in that foreign land—in that exilic space in which God no longer speaks to us directly. So what can we do? How are we to proceed?

We remember. We patiently return to ourselves each year, in an effort to cultivate still more patience. And, maybe, one day, our efforts will come to stoke a perfect faith.

About the Author
Malka Fleischmann is a writer and educator living in Manhattan. She is passionate about Judaism, love, education, literature and interfaith work. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Divinity School, Malka is also a Wexner Fellow-Davidson Scholar and M2 fellow and has roots firmly planted in Camp Stone. Her writing has been published in the New York Times, the Jewish Week, Tablet and in Maggid Press' Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth.
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