Erica Brown

What Are You Waiting For?

What are you waiting for right now? About this time of the year, a whole lot of parents are waiting for school to start. A whole lot of kids aren’t. We might be waiting for the exact right time to start a project, start a diet, get really serious about dating, moving, finding a job — the list goes on. Voltaire once said, “We never live; we are always in the expectation of living.”

There seem to be two kinds of waiting: waiting as a condition of in-between-ness and waiting as an active state of anticipation. The first category is the pause between events or activities. We wait in airports. We wait for buses. We wait for good news. We wait in lines. If you grew up in Russia, waiting was a cultural phenomenon. Even the most impatient of us expects to spend a lot of time in this life waiting.

The Norwegian philosopher, Lars Svendsen, describes this kind of waiting as a state of modern boredom in his book “A Philosophy of Boredom.” Today many wait stations — airports, bus stops and even gas stations — try to minimize the boredom associated with waiting with TV screens and stores. Although these may prove distracting, no one is going to an airport to watch TV or go shopping.

Then there’s the kind of waiting that involves non-activity but is soaked in positive or negative anticipation because at the end of this wait lies transformation or redemption of some kind. We wait for an acceptance letter, for a job offer, for a doctor to share the results of a biopsy, for someone to say yes. This kind of waiting is usually harder because it involves tension and may not result in the desired outcome. We’re waiting for something to happen. It might not happen. But it just might.

Sometimes we can’t wait fast enough.

In this modern age, we have lost the art of waiting, waiting in both senses of the word. Collectors used to wait years, sometimes decades, in anticipation of locating a special book, piece of art or object. Now it’s a search engine click away. Waiting was part of the hunt. It was its own pleasure, and it made the outcome that much more tantalizing and fulfilling.

Today, we get impatient when computers take a few extra seconds to follow a cue. We get worried or angry when someone doesn’t respond to an e-mail fast enough. Everything from ERs to mail delivery is about reducing wait times, which has made our wait muscles flabbier than ever.

Here’s a great illustration. I asked my sister-in-law in Israel what to buy for my nephew’s wedding. After investigating, she e-mailed me with what they still needed. I got the e-mail, went online and found the gift — with two-day shipping. Perfect. I wrote back to her in under five minutes. It was a one-word e-mail and one I send frequently when completing tasks because it makes me happy. Done.

This was speed-dating for wedding registries, and it was highly satisfying. She wrote right back. “Done?” It seemed impossible. “Can you get moshiah [the messiah] to come this quickly?”

My response: “If moshiah were available on Amazon Prime, believe me, I would put in an order right away.”

Speaking of moshiah, many of us are acquainted with a song about waiting built on one of Maimonides’ 13 principles: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he may tarry, I will wait every day for his arrival.” The waiting itself is holy.

My grandfather taught me a maudlin tune to this song that he heard repeatedly in Auschwitz as people were marched to their deaths. There are groups today that are told to stop singing this song on visits to concentration camps. One tour leader was fined 100 zlotys (about $350) because he didn’t restrain his group from singing this song about our ultimate waiting.

We don’t know who composed the sad tune. Legend has it that Rabbi Azriel David Fastag was inspired with the tune on a train to Treblinka. A person who escaped that train taught it to his rebbe, and the tune stuck.

Perhaps we have to re-learn how to wait. We have to acquire the difficult wisdom to know when to wait with active anticipation and make the future happen and when to have the patience to sit back and allow life to unfold. Patience does not mean that we are doing nothing. Waiting is power when it helps us understand when to act on our beliefs and when to hold back. Too early, and we may lose it all. Too late, and we may have lost it already. One day we may just figure it out. I can’t wait.

Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month. 

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).