Patience, Not Procrastination

I am not a big fan of the two- or three-word mottos which often appear on bumper stickers. I must confess, though, that I once succumbed to the temptation of hanging such a motto on my office door. It was long ago when I was in a work setting with several other workers. One put up a bright red sign on his door that read, "Paranoia Pays." Another, not to be outdone, put up his two words of wisdom the next day. His sign read, "Procrastination Pays." I was much younger then and had not yet learned to control my impulse to enter office competitions. My own sign soon graced my office door. It read, "Patience Pays."

I will not comment upon the dubious beneficial effects of paranoia. I will insist that procrastination does not pay, although I do occasionally yield to that common human weakness. But I remain an avid advocate of patience.

The Jewish value that is most antagonistic to procrastination is known as zerizut, often translated as "alertness" or “haste.” The person who exemplifies this value is called a zariz, someone who acts with alacrity and energy, especially when performing a mitzvah, or good deed. Our Sages advise us that zerizim makdimim lemitzvot, alert individuals perform mitzvot as soon as they can. "Abraham awoke early in the morning," a phrase that appears more than once in the book of Genesis, typifies the behavior of the zariz who springs into action at daybreak.

This week's Torah portion, Parshav Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) begins: "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: command Aaron and his sons…" The "command" relates to the ritual of the burnt offering and of the meal offering, two sacrificial rituals which the priests must perform. Rashi finds it curious that the forceful verb "command" is used here, rather than gentler verbs such as "say to Aaron," "speak to Aaron," or even "instruct Aaron."

Rashi explains that the verb "command" is used because it implies that special energy and care must be given to these ritual procedures. It is not enough to "say to" or "instruct" Aaron and his sons. They must be "commanded." Rashi famously informs us that ein tzav ela lashon ziruz, the verb "command" invariably connotes the need for alertness and haste, zerizut. Procrastination and indolence cannot be tolerated when it comes to the performance of these rituals.

This particular week, Parshat Tzav coincides with Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat immediately preceding the festival of Passover. The importance of zerizut, haste and alertness, is also part of the Exodus story. The Torah tells that we are to eat unleavened bread, matzah, on Passover because "you departed from the land of Egypt bechipazon, hurriedly. (Deuteronomy 16:3)" Chipazon is just another word for zerizut.

At the Passover seder, we assert that the fact that we left Egypt in a hurry is the very reason that we eat matzah. I refer to the familiar passage in the Haggadah where we ask, "This matzah that we eat: what does it recall?" We answer, "It recalls the dough of our ancestors, which did not have time to rise… As it is said (Exodus 12: 39): 'They baked the dough that they had brought out of Egypt into unleavened cakes, for it had not risen, for they were cast out of Egypt and could not delay...'"

One can easily understand why the Children of Israel did not delay their flight from the bondage of Egypt. Procrastination in the face of the opportunity to shed the chains of slavery would have been foolhardy, to say the least.

But our Sages insist that their eagerness to leave Egypt was not the reason that their departure was not delayed. Rather, it was because during their centuries of slavery, they had nearly sunk to the depth of spiritual defilement. Had they sunk any lower, they would have been so degraded that redemption would have been out of the question. Procrastination did not merely risk their physical freedom. It risked their opportunity for spiritual redemption as well.

We can now clearly see why chipazon and zerizut, haste and alertness, were prerequisites for the Exodus from Egypt. Procrastination would endanger their freedom from physical bondage and forfeit their spiritual elevation as well.

On Passover, we are made aware of more than one episode of geulah, or redemption. One is in the historical past, the redemption from Egypt. The second is much more glorious, but lies in the future. It is the redemption that we anticipate with the arrival of the true Messiah.

Will that redemption also occur hastily and hurriedly, with chipazon and zerizut?

The prophet Isaiah provides us with a very surprising response to this question. In his prophecy about the ultimate redemption, Isaiah declares: "For you will not depart in haste, bechipazon, nor will you leave in flight; for the Lord is marching before you, the God of Israel is your rear guard." (Isaiah 52:12)

Are we then to use the word "procrastination" with reference to the process of the ultimate messianic redemption? I think not. I think that the proper word here is "patience," not "procrastination." There are processes in the history of the human race that cannot be rushed or hurried. They take time, great care, and must go through many indispensable stages of development.

How eloquently this teaching of Isaiah is echoed in the words of the Sages: "This is the nature of the redemption of Israel: it begins bit by bit, very gradually, but as time goes on it progresses more and more rapidly." (Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 1:1)

How startlingly precise are the prophecy of Isaiah and the wise words of the Talmud when applied to the history of our people. Our current exile has lasted nearly two thousand years. When we look back, however, we detect moments of tiny progress toward redemption. Admittedly, we have suffered moments of painful regress. But repeatedly over the centuries, and often in increasingly dramatic ways, we glimpse the imminence of the geulah sheleimah, the complete and final redemption.

This week's very special Shabbat is known as Shabbat HaGadol, the "Great Sabbath." Why? The simplest answer draws upon the concluding verse of the haftarah, the weekly reading from the works of the prophets: "Behold, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord." (Malachi 3:23). It is a "great Sabbath" because it anticipates “the great and awesome day,” the day of the culmination of the long process leading to final and complete redemption.

Our Sages dispute whether that final redemption will occur in the month of Tishrei, six months from now, or in this month, the month of Nissan. Let us beseech the Almighty to bless us with chipazon and zerizut and speedily grant us that redemption this very month.

In the words we will all recite this coming Monday evening, "May the Lord... bring us in peace to other seasons and festivals that await us, happy in the building of Your city and rejoicing in Your service… so that we shall thank You in a new song for our redemption and for our lives' salvation. Blessed are You, Lord, Redeemer of Israel."