Is patience always a virtue? Our Torah portion and President’s Day invite us to consider when patience is a sin.
The first laws after Sinai permit slavery. Rich Israelites can enslave poor Israelites. Indeed, poor fathers can sell their own daughters into slavery. Horrible, painful texts, what Bible scholar Phyllis Trible calls “texts of terror.”
How to understand our holy Torah, God’s word, permitting atrocity and evil?
No less an authority than Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says it’s all about patience. God wants to abolish slavery, but slowly. Incrementally. Patience is called for. In an essay entitled “The Slow End of Slavery,” he writes:
So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of God’s relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do so of our own free will. So Mishpatim does not abolish slavery but it sets in motion a series of fundamental laws that will lead people, albeit at their own pace, to abolish it of their own accord….
If history tells us anything it is that God has patience…
What does patience look like, what is the price to be paid for patience, and who pays that price? As Alexis Coe writes in her new biography entitled You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington (2020), our first president was a massive slave-owner. He was on record as saying that slavery should be abolished “by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees.” What that meant in practice was that he never freed a single slave during his life, and he pursued zealously his own slaves that ran away. When he needed money to buy molasses, rum, limes and tamarinds, he sold a slave named Tom to the West Indies knowing that this slave would work hard, eat poorly, receive no medical care, and die young. His own words and letters testify to this. To his credit, at his death, his will did free his 123 slaves upon the death of his wife Martha. (By contrast, Benjamin Franklin freed his slaves while he lived, and he petitioned Congress to abolish slavery.)
Only somebody who is not and has never been a slave can speak of patience here. If you are a slave, patience is no virtue. It is a sin. George Washington’s slaves suffered grievously, and his grounds at Mount Vernon are filled with the unmarked graves of the human beings he enslaved.
But this is not only about Mishpatim and George Washington. This is about us. When do we commit the sin of patience?
When is the better response, the moral response, the response of the Rebbe, the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who taught that “Anything worth doing is worth doing now.”