Wexner Foundation Chairman Les Wexner, above right, and David Gergen, Founding Director, Center for Public Leadership and Professor of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently talked with the author’s Wexner Israel Fellows class at Harvard.
When I think of patience, I immediately remember a well-known story of the Elder Hillel’s patience: The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells of a brash man who made a bet with his friend for a considerable sum of money that he could get Hillel upset. On a Friday night, while Hillel bathed, the cheeky man bothered him with fabricated questions. Each time, the ever-patient Hillel wrapped himself in a towel and went out to offer respectful answers to the man’s questions.
Another more familiar Talmudic story (Shabbat 31a) explicitly relates to tolerance and the acceptance of the other: A non-Jew once came before Shammai with a curious demand. He wanted Shammai to teach him the entire Torah while the gentile stood on one foot. Knowing that to be impossible, Shammai simply rejected him. The questioner then took his request to Hillel the Elder. Hillel gently told him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
In other words, the essence of the Torah is to not do to others what we would not want them to do to us. Hillel learned this from the verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In Hebrew, the words patience (סבלנות) and tolerance (סובלנות) are very similar, and the question is whether there is an inner connection between them beyond the verbatim meaning. The root ס.ב.ל (which means suffering or an ability to carry a burden – physical or emotional) is common to both words, and I think it helps us understand their inner intent and their linkage.
Patience requires willingness to wait, to hold back. Overcoming the natural desire for immediate gratification involves at least a certain amount of “suffering,” a departure from a comfort zone, or an ability to deal with an additional burden. Tolerance is the acceptance of the existence of the other, a being who differs from us in many characteristics, external or internal, and often both. This too sometimes involves “suffering” as a result of the difficulty in compromising and allowing a living space for everyone.
As we know, our sages ruled that in the dispute between Shammai and Hillel, it is Hillel’s opinion, in most cases, that determines our practice. However, if both Shammai and Hillel knew the Torah very well, why does Hillel always win the discussion? The commentators explain, and I very much identify with their reasoning, that all lies in the fact that the main difference between the two is that Hillel was patient, and his patience enabled him to listen carefully to the opinion of those who disagreed with him. Shammai, on the other hand, was meticulous, which apparently made him less attentive to the other. When it is necessary to decide which side’s case to accept as a practice, we should follow the person who, in addition to his personal opinion, listens carefully to the opinions of others and only afterward shares his final recommendation. The recommendation of such a person is based on a number of perspectives and is therefore likely to rely on a more complete picture of reality and be less susceptible to blind spots. This is an essential lesson for everyone, especially for leaders.
Our Wexner Israel Fellowship cohort (Class 30) is currently in the final stretch of our program at Harvard. At the end of this month, we will conclude a journey that began nearly a year ago. We’ve spent that time learning from the excellent faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), and the outstanding staff of The Wexner Foundation (with special thanks to Elisha Gechter). We also learned from our HKS classmates from all over the world and from the local Jewish communities that embraced us with so much love. But most of all we learned from each other, our intimate group of nine Fellows in our Wexner cohort and, of course, from our spouses, too. The differences between us, and the patience we developed toward each other, in both small and large groups, allowed us to grow together significantly.
During this year, we witnessed extreme and shocking events that manifest the bitter result of impatience and intolerance. Eleven Jews murdered in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Fifty Muslims murdered in a mosque in New Zealand. We are still trying to take in the murderous attacks in churches in Sri Lanka. And on the last day of Passover: murder and bloodshed at a synagogue in California. These massacres flicker in our eyes like a warning sign, red with blood, reminding us of what happens when discourse is not patient, and when certain people cannot accept the other, especially those who are different from them.
When I was asked to write this article about patience, I was pleased. Patience is such an elementary building block in many issues that we have dealt with in our role as Wexner Israel Fellows in the last year and in a variety of areas of life. It would not be an exaggeration to say that patience is life’s key virtue. To cite some examples:
- It often seems that a leader must act immediately, be prepared to respond and not hesitate. But a true leader must also exercise the virtue of patience in listening, building trust, setting a personal example and creating deep relationships.
- Timing is crucial! It could be a wedding, an academic degree, a transition to another job, participation in a Wexner program or even a political move. To avoid putting the cart before the horse (להקדים את המאוחר,) it is essential to know how to apply patience.
- In a Negotiation course I took at HKS, we explored the notion of creating value (and not only claiming value). One of the critical tools in negotiation is to be able to understand, in depth, the underlying interests and purposes of the other parties. To that end, it is necessary to listen carefully and attentively, a skill that requires great patience. Only this kind of deep listening, which includes restating the message we heard in our own words as well as an effort to understand the other’s motives and assumptions, enables us to reach a level of comprehension that will lead to a result that is optimal for all parties.
- In a fascinating workshop about the “immunity to change,” we saw that everyone has an internal barrier that prevents him or her from advancing on an issue that may be critically important to each of them. We learned that these barriers can be found and overcome, but to do so requires a process of profound observation, achieved with the support of another person close enough to help us see beyond our blind spots. I can acknowledge that my difficulty was in learning to give more frequent and vigorous expression to my own voice. During the workshop, I managed to get to the bottom of the matter and deepen my personal progress on this challenge. The process of identification, followed by the process of gradual change, called for an abundance of patience.
Finally, in the spirit of the special dates that we mark during this month, I cannot help mentioning that we were privileged to be part of what Rabbi Kook called “an eternal nation that does not fear an extended journey,” (עם הנצח לא מפחד מדרך ארוכה). Did someone say patience?
After two thousand years in exile, two thousand years in which we never stopped dreaming about the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish people suffered a cruel and painful tragedy in the form of the Holocaust. At that time, it was extremely difficult to imagine the future of the Jewish people, and indeed it was even more difficult to believe that this battered nation would pass so quickly from a devastating Holocaust to a miraculous rebirth, from deep darkness to great light.
Within a few years after the Holocaust ended, the blink of an eye in historical terms, the Jewish people rose from the ashes with tremendous courage and vigor and established an independent state in its historic land. There is no doubt that in addition to heroism, sacrifice and resourcefulness, the success of the Zionist enterprise also required a great deal of leadership. The Wexner Foundation, led by Les and Abigail, has recognized the importance of leadership development for the future of Judaism, the State of Israel and the world at large. Now, as this fantastic program reaches its finale, I fully understand how much we need leadership that is based on patience and tolerance and – even more so – how much it can be developed, refined and improved by appropriate study and training.
On behalf of my Wexner Israel Fellows and myself, thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the gift of knowledge that The Wexner Foundation bequeathed upon us. I believe that the most meaningful message you can hear from us is that we promise to “pay it forward” to the State of Israel and to our brothers and sisters around the world.