The Soul of Waiting

This post is for anyone who finds waiting to be a challenge – meaning most everyone.

“Time waits for no one,” quips the adage, but maybe that’s backward. Maybe the soul of healthy waiting is cultivating a healthy sense of timelessness that we don’t try to control.

Easier said than done. One challenge of waiting is precisely that we wait inside time. The longer our wait, the more our impatience and the more challenging our wait.

We moderns often live by the clock: workdays, rush hours, feeding schedules, medicine schedules, exercise schedules, even synagogue schedules. Heschel called Shabbat a “Palace in time,” 25 hours outside of routine time to touch eternity. Yes, some of us even try to time our timelessness.

Time drives us, albeit often for the good. Time allows change and hope: “For everything, there is a season and a time for every purpose” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Awareness of time inspires us to dare, to love, to grow and to appreciate: “Teach us to number our days, so we may attain a heart of wisdom” (Psalms 90:12). Indeed, time waits for no one: “In God’s hands are all our times” (Psalms 31:16).

Our inability to control time is one deep lesson of Torah’s teaching that our desert ancestors followed a cloud by day and fire by night, moving when it moved and stopping when it stopped (Numbers 9:16-22).

The Sforno (Ovadia ben Yaakov Yosef, 1475-1550) taught that desert wandering, “on God’s time,” came to teach radical trust and surrender to a transcendent power beyond ourselves. More often we tend to wait grudgingly and impatiently, not with radical trust and surrender. (Think rush hour, beloved’s phone call, or test results.)

So how to wait healthfully? Maybe the soul of waiting healthfully is soul itself.

Jewish mysticism holds that at revelation, Sinai “smoked” – in Hebrew עשן (ashan), an acronym for עולם (Olam-space), שנה (shanah-time) and נפש (Nefesh-soul). Then “on God’s time,” our ancestors followed a “cloud” – in Hebrew ענן (anan). It’s the same Hebrew word except the acronym drops the letter for “time” in favor of a second letter for “soul.”

The soul of healthy waiting is the timelessness of soul itself. When we tune into the soul, our waiting can more healthfully lean into the organic flow of things, with less resistance from our clockwork minds that crave control and instant gratification. It’s precisely by releasing the illusion of control that we can most readily sense the flow of spirit.

Try it the next time you’re stuck in traffic or waiting for that phone call.

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