In a famous experiment known as the marshmallow challenge, psychologists gathered child participants and placed marshmallows in front of them, warning them to wait until they were given permission to eat them. The researchers studied these children through development and found that those who were able to wait longer to eat their marshmallow exhibited greater self-control in adulthood and this ability to wait was associated with other positive predictors of success and well being, as well.
And yet, waiting is extremely difficult. If you’ve ever read a child a story, you know that some children will leave you bewildered with their uncanny ability to have memorized every word (when they certainly can’t read on their own yet), stopping you if you so much as skip one “the” or “and” in an attempt to save time. And then there are those who, from the moment you sit down and open the book, are asking, “and then what happened?!”, turning pages faster than you can read any of the words, eager, even impatient, to reach the ending.
We find ourselves in the thick of a cliffhanger now in Parshas Mikeitz. The end of Parshas Vayeishev left us at the edge of our proverbial seats, wondering how – or if – Yosef would make it out of jail. And then, as we follow along breathlessly through Yosef’s almost instantaneous rise to power, his recognition of the brothers, his schemes to get them to bring Binyamin down to Egypt, and then finally the heart-pounding moment when Yosef’s cup is discovered in Binyamin’s sack, we are constantly asking ourselves, “how on earth is this story going to end?”
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks notes that this uncertainty is an exact parallel to the story itself, which features so many heart-stopping cliffhangers, from the moment Yosef goes to search for his brothers at Yaakov’s request to the moment he reveals his true identity to them. Furthermore, it is a perfect reflection of Yosef’s experience in jail. Until that point, he was highly confident that God was with him, that Hashem was guiding his every step and misstep.
Yet suddenly, at the end of Parshas Vayeishev, Yosef decides to “take matters into his own hands.” Tired of waiting to be released from prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Yosef asks Pharaoh’s butler to remember him. Though temporarily reassured that his fate just might improve, Yosef will wait two long, uncertain, anxiety-ridden years, until Hashem causes the butler – who does not remember Yosef (40:23) but forgets him – to remember.
For Yosef, and for us, this is a critical lesson. Sometimes, we think we are in a place where we finally can see God’s hand in our lives. We feel reconnected, we’ve recommitted ourselves to trusting him. And yet, life happens. Uncertainty, doubt, hardship, and disappointment gnaw at us; we begin to become antsy, wanting to take matters into our own hands. We tire of waiting for Yeshuas Hashem, despite our belief that it can come in the blink of an eye. We try desperately to be patient as we wait for the next page of our stories to turn, but the wait is agonizing.
Patience is one of the most difficult and important character traits a human being is forced to exhibit. As Jews, we must recognize that waiting, the enormous, painstaking difficulty of it, is part and parcel of our national and personal existence. Rabbi Zev Leff notes that it is on purpose that Chazal divided the Parshios such that Vayeishev and Mikeitz end on such clear cliffhangers. Being able to tolerate the uncertainty, to sit in the dark, to embrace the lack of clarity, is integral to our spiritual development. These moments of tension, of unknowing, provide us with the opportunity to truly trust God in a way that relinquishes all control to Him. When we know how a story will end, it is in some ways easier to sit tight and wait for the events to unfold. More often than not, however, we do not know how the story will end – and yet we are asked to be in the moment and celebrate each moment, despite the uncertainty.
Chanukah is an enigmatic holiday because the Chanukah story itself is actually the mid-point, not the ending. When the Jews restored the temple, it was a temporary reprieve, eight days of light amidst an overwhelming darkness. The battle that the Maccabees won was just one of many in the vast war against the Greeks, which, spoiler-alert, actually culminated in a Greek victory. In fact, the dynasty of the Chashmonaim did not last, and eventually, the Romans overtook the Greeks and subsequently destroyed the Beis HaMikdash. And yet, we celebrate Chanukah, the middle of the story, because even within the darkness, the uncertainty, even with the eventual unhappy ending, the miracles Hashem bestowed upon us, the light and love of His embrace within the uncertainty, is certainly worth celebrating.
Similarly, the Chassidic masters teach that each night of Chanukah is a segulah for something specific, and an auspicious time to daven for those things, and we do so. We are in limbo, sitting in the uncertainty, waiting like Yosef, like his brothers, not knowing what the answer will be, or when it will come, or where everything is leading – and yet we daven for the outcome we desire, and do our best to wait – and wait – and wait. It may be a cliffhanger, we may want to skip ahead and know the ending, but there is so much to be gained from sitting squarely in the middle of the story. As we wait, we can take a look at our lives and ask ourselves, even if we are in midst of this war, what battles has Hashem helped me to win? Even if I am sitting in the pit, not knowing my fate, what hugs have I received from Hashem, the spices in the caravan, the reassurance that I am loved, and certainly not alone?
There is a tremendous power in sitting with uncertainty, in embracing the unknown, in hanging off the cliff entirely. The urge to skip to the ending, to read the last page of the book first, to know how a story or relationship or year or lifetime will end before we really get invested, is extremely strong. And yet – most good things require us to invest without knowing, to trust without 100% tangible incontrovertible proof, to fall without a guarantee of a safe landing.
This Shabbos Chanukah Parshas Mikeitz, we are in the midst of the midst of the midst. Ironically, the word “mikeitz,” means “at the end,” for the Parsha begins at the end of the additional two years Yosef had to wait in prison. And yet, it was not, in fact, the end - for Yosef, for his brothers, or for us. In many ways, it was the beginning. At this midway point of the year, in the middle of the story, we are all likely waiting, hoping, longing for something. The urge to get ahead of ourselves may at times feel overwhelming. Let us remember that even within the uncertainty, the waiting, the darkness, new beginnings are unfolding all around us. Together, we will hold our breath and wait; it will be worth it.