Patience and Impatience - October 3, 2014
He’s a Jewish kid who has grown up to be a world-famous singer and poet. For all of the countries he has played concerts in, somehow he has never been to Israel, the land of his ancestors. He‘s 37, and he’s here in Israel, and a reporter asks him if he is a practicing Jewish person. He says, “I’m always practicing. Sometimes, I feel the fear of G-d. I do feel that fear sometimes. I got to get myself together.” And now he’s on the stage at Binyanei Ha’Uma convention center in Jerusalem. And he sings a few songs, and the crowd loves him, adores him; showers him with wild applause. But for him, it’s just not happening. Maybe it’s the fear of G-d that he was talking about; maybe it’s about performing in Jerusalem. Or maybe it’s that he knows what his songs should sound like, and he is not doing anything justice, not the words or the music or himself or the people who have come to see him. So he says to the audience: “If it doesn’t get any better, we’ll just end the concert and I’ll refund your money. Some nights one is raised off the ground and some nights you just can’t get off the ground. There’s no point lying about it. And tonight we just haven’t been getting off the ground. It says in the Kabbalah that if you can’t get off the ground, you should stay on the ground. And this is a terrible thing to happen to Jerusalem. So listen, we’re going to leave the stage now, and try to profoundly meditate in the dressing room, to get ourselves back into shape. And if we can manage, we’ll be back.”
So they go backstage and the singer sends his manager to see if the audience will accept refunds. The manager goes and comes back and says that the audience will not budge. Some of them tell the manager that they don’t care if the singer sings or not; they love him so much, they just want him on the stage, and they will sing to him. The concert will be that they will sing the singer’s songs to him if he will just come back on stage. From the dressing room, he can hear thousands of people singing a song, a Hebrew song that has three words
Hayveynu Shalom Aleichem,
which means, “We have brought peace upon you.” And the singer stands up and said, “Oh, this is really great. Oh, this gig ain’t over, oh no.” And with that, he is back out and onto the stage. The audience is still singing hayveynu shalom aleichem, singing louder, clapping wildly. And the singer plays a couple of songs and the audience applauds more fiercely, more reverentially than any audience had ever applauded before. It is overwhelming. And the singer and his band are all crying. The singer can’t sing another song. And he grabs the microphone with both hands and says, “Hey listen, people, my band and I are all crying. We’re too broken up to go on, but I just wanted to tell you thank you, and good night.” And the audience yelps and claps.
The singer goes backstage and sits down. “What an audience,” he says, “Ever see anything like that?” And then, once again, he starts to cry.
The singer’s name was Leonard Cohen, a Jewish boy from Montreal, the grandson of Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, a celebrated scholar who became even more important to him when his father died when he was only nine. His other grandfather started the Canadian Jewish Congress. Leonard was a Kohen, and when he was a boy he was told very specifically that he was the descendant of the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem.
If you know the work of Leonard Cohen, you know that there are many Jewish references and the tone of a biblical prophet; you know that there is a lot about hope and miracles and redemption and despair.
And on that stage in Jerusalem, there was a Jewish boy who had grown up with an upbringing fit for a prophet, and he was worried that he could not measure up.
I keep thinking about the way the audience responded to Cohen’s feelings of inadequacy. They had been looking forward to this concert for a long time, they had listened to his albums for years, and many of them traveled hundred of miles, and they had the right to be frustrated and disappointed and angry. After everything they had done, he sings a few songs and goes backstage? And they respond by singing a song of peace to him? Why that song?
It was the perfect song because Cohen was struggling with himself, with his feelings of perfectionism and inadequacy. He was so at war with himself that he needed to find peace before he could sing. And they sang peace upon him. Hayvaynoo shalom aleichem. And it worked. Their patience, their incredible patience, worked, and he came back. But more, he was moved to tears; it was one of the greatest moments of his life.
When I think about this story, I think about the patience.
We have to be like that audience,
The people we love are on that stage and they’re struggling.
They don’t know what they want to do
They don’t know who they are
They feel like they’ve failed to measure up to their dreams
They don’t think they’ve measured up to our dreams
They don’t know if they’re worth a thing,
They don’t think they can do justice to their lives or anyone else.
They don’t know if they’re worthy of love
They want to give us our money back.
And we have to wait
We have to hang in there.
We have to sing peace upon them.
Even when they disappear back stage
And it seems like they’re not coming back
We have to keep singing and clapping
We have to be very, very patient.
The Hebrew word for patience is savlanoot. Savlanoot. It comes from the word savlan, which means long-suffering. The root sevel means “to carry”; the noun means a “burden.” Patience takes the ability to be long-suffering, to carry a burden. Patience is often a quite painful process.
People ask me, all the time: “What is love?”
Sometimes I think that love is patience
Love is endless patience, endless forgiveness
One of the great Chasidic stories is about a man who has a son who is just impossible. The son is rude and mean, he drinks all night and comes back at all hours; he is ungrateful and nasty and mad at the world. And the father doesn’t know how to cope with this kid.
So he goes to his rabbi.
“Rebbe,” the man asks, “What should I do with my son?”
And the Rebbe looks up from his Talmud and says, “Love him more.”
That story is everything I want to say. When we’re really at our wit’s end with someone, we have to love him or her more.
Now let’s get to the bad part.
We’re not very good at patience.
We show our impatience every day.
“Why can’t you just do this math?”
“I was so good at this. What’s your problem?”
“You’re so lazy! Why, by the time I was your age I had climbed the Rockies and built three bridges!”
“It only takes one job; why can’t you find one?”
When we say such things, we think we’re doing them a favor.
We think we’re offering “constructive criticism.”
And we only make things worse.
We rush backstage and shout: “You have to go back out there right this minute! You are embarrassing me and yourself! Those people paid good money and now you owe them a show. You can think about truth and beauty and sincerity on your own time. You can think about who you are another day. Now get out on that stage and be a responsible grownup for once in your life!”
I promise you that if anyone had said those words to Leonard Cohen that night, he never would have gone back on stage.
My beloved father, of blessed memory, said that you should never do anything on anyone else’s timetable. Do things when they are right for you. We each have our own timetables. And so you have to be patient with people who don’t do things when you want them to. All too often, we do not show that patience.
Let me tell you a few more things about Leonard Cohen. He is a nice Jewish boy (he just turned 80 last week) who sings some songs, steeped in the liturgy and literature of the High Holidays that do nothing less than sear your soul. But perhaps his most famous song, “Suzanne,” has some of the most beautiful lines about Jesus that one can possibly imagine. He spent years, years as a Zen Buddhist monk. He has been on a life-long spiritual search. His spiritual and poetic patience are astonishing. He will work for a full year on one song. He strives for perfection.
Now let me tell you about another time Leonard Cohen came to Israel. It was many years later, 2009. Cohen, always very involved with peace movements, wanted to create the Leonard Cohen Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace. It would be funded with the proceeds from two concerts. He would sing in both the West Bank and Israel to an Arab and then a Jewish audience. He wanted to raise money for an organization that gave money to the parents of both Arab and Jewish kids who had died violent deaths. But the Arabs wouldn’t let him come to the West Bank if he sang in Israel at all. Cohen would not give into such garbage, and so he still did the concert in Tel Aviv, in front of 50,000 people. He said that what he wanted to do was simply respond to human grief.
And at the end of the concert, and you can see this on YouTube if you don’t believe me, he re-enacted what his ancestor, the high priest, did in Jerusalem:
Yevarechecha H- Veyishmerecha
Yaer H’ Panav elecha veechunekka
Yesa H Panav Alecha veyaseym lecha Shalom
May the Lord bless you and keep you
May the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you
May the Lord make His face shine upon you and grant you peace.
So in the first concert, the crowd had sung a song of peace to him, and now, years later, he blessed them with peace.
In his own beautiful way, he thanked them for what they had done for him many years ago.
That’s how it can work. If we are patient with those who are in trouble, they’ll give us peace and patience when we’ll need it.
And Cohen quoted something else in that 2009 concert. He quoted one of the great passages in all of literature, from the Book of Ruth. “Your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d.” The story is that Naomi’s husband and two sons have died in a foreign land, and she wants to go home. Naomi’s Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth is saying: “You say you have nothing to give me now that our husbands have died. But what I need is you and I’m sticking with you.”
Why did Leonard Cohen quote this passage at the second concert to 50,000 Israelis?
He was saying:
‘You know and I know I’ve had quite a spiritual journey, including being a Zen Buddhist monk
Thank you for being patient with me not only at that concert years ago but for my whole career. I want to tell you that for everything I’ve been through, “Your people is my people, and your G-d is my G-d.”
Like Cohen, you’ve had your own journey
your own Jewish biography
You may not have been a monk for years
But you’ve had your ups and downs and ins and outs with your Jewishness
Over these years, more than three decades now, I’ve learned that each of you has your own Jewish journey.
And like my dad said, “Each person has the right to his or her own timetable.”
And I’m saying: That’s ok
It’s never too late
There’s never too much water under the bridge
The ship has never sailed
We’re good at teaching old dogs new Jewish tricks
We’re here, waiting for you, whenever you want, with whatever you need
And if a synagogue or a rabbi or a shul officer got something wrong, stick with us anyway
We’re really good people trying to do good things
And I want you, in the next year, to be more patient with yourself.
Maybe to love yourself is to be patient when you have to be a patient
A lot of us are living longer lives, thank G-d, and if you’re lucky enough to live a long life, you’re going to have your share of medical problems and they’re going to take your bits and pieces. And you’re going to wind up a patient sometimes. They call it being a patient for a reason. And so many of you are so mean to yourselves.
“This doesn’t happen to me”
“He said it would take two months but I’m going to do it in one month”
And then we hurt our recovery by rushing
We have to be more patient with ourselves.
So what am I asking you to do in the next year? I’m asking you to be more patient, to show your love through waiting
And when it comes to the people who have tried your patience beyond your endurance,
the ones you’ve given to and forgiven countless times,
when you just can’t be patient any more,
when you just lose it,
remember what the rabbi said:
“Love them more.”