Nothing Great Is Ever Finished – Rabbi Dr. Julie Hilton Danan
Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5783 / 2022 – Seaside Jewish Community
There is an old rabbinic teaching that we should leave a little bit of our house unfinished. (Had these guys seen my townhouse in Philly?) But seriously, leaving a bit of our house unfinished was to be a reminder of the destruction of the Temple. More broadly, it signals that life is unfinished, that all good things are incomplete.
Shabbat is another reminder that things are never finished. Rabbi Tarfon’s famous saying starts, “It is not up to you to complete the work.” Lo alecha hamelachah ligmor. Interestingly, while there are several words for “work” in Hebrew, but the word that he chose for “work” is the precise term that the Torah uses for the tasks that are not allowed to do on Shabbat. Lo ta’ase kol melachah (you shall do no work).
It is a mitzvah—one of the big 10—to leave our work unfinished once a week. Whether or not there is something major on our to-do list, it can wait a day. Think of it as a practice of knowing we can’t and shouldn’t try to do it all.
I was brought up to believe that you should finish what you start, no matter how long it takes. But in an existential sense, life is all about unfinished business. In his book: “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals,” author Oliver Berkeman takes on time management. Whether it is our youthful list of dreams, endless to-do lists in our working years, or our beckoning bucket list in retirement: life is finite, and we have to let go of the illusion that productivity or even prioritization will somehow enable us to accomplish everything we dream of or that society expects of us.
The High Holidays, too, remind us that our life is limited. Prayers like “Unetaneh Tokef,” which we said in this morning’s service, remind us that human life is fleeting and much is beyond our control. But to paraphrase a saying from the technological world: our inability to complete everything in our lifetimes not a bug in the system; it’s a feature. Let me suggest that the very fact that we can’t do it all, that we hand over the world to other people after us, is the thing gives our live meaning.
The idea of unfinished business in life is central to the Torah. In a couple of weeks we will “finish” reading the Torah and the conclusion may feel less than satisfying. After we have spent 4 books following the career of Moses as the leader of our people, God tells Moses to ascend Mt. Nevo in the Jordan Valley, and from there he shows him the whole panorama of the land of Israel. But then the kicker: “I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.”
Moses dies with a kiss from God and is buried in an unmarked grave. The story of our people will continue without him, yet always with him. Reading this story again and again, year after year, is not just for more information. Some people say that the book of Joshua, of entering and conquering the land, should be the sixth book of the Torah. But tellingly, we don’t read it in full in the synagogue. We are much more riveted by the unfinished business of Moses than the glorious continuation. The unfinished story at the end of the Torah is a continual reminder that even our greatest leader couldn’t complete the work, and neither can we.
In a sense Moses represents the idealist in each of us. He wants to be in the promised land, but also with an exemplary society, a holy nation following the Torah. With pain and protest, he learns to be satisfied with a vision of his dream and with knowing that he has nurtured a successor and generation(s) to come. Many of us here are also idealists and we want to see our hopes for society come to fruition, whether it’s true equality for women, healing the environment or a fully just society. We want to see it all in our lifetimes, but like Moses, we eventually realize that the journey to our ideals may be the destination.
Moses eventually focused on building up his successor, and preparing a new generation to go on without him. Because he let go, he lives on. Some 3400 years later, we still call him, “Moses our teacher.”
Our tradition of unfinished business doesn’t stop with Moses. Fast forward a few centuries, and we have the indelible story of King David, who also had a great project he never got to fulfill. King David ascended to the throne, vanquished Israel’s enemies, and made Jerusalem his capital. But his greatest dream was left to the next generation. He doesn’t get to build the Holy Temple because he has been warlike and shed innocent blood. (Chronicles 1 22). His son, Solomon whose name means peace, Melech Shlomo, can build the Temple, a place of peace. King David wanted to build a “house” for God, but he learned, somewhat ironically, that God would be the One to build the “house” for him, meaning, not a fancy building, but people – his family and dynasty (Samuel II 7:11).
Like King David, some in our midst have been achievers in our careers. We didn’t conquer nations, but we may be—or have been—heroes and VIP’s. While gaining satisfaction from our work, many high achievers eventually come to find that other things are more valuable in the long run. It reminds me of a saying by actor Jim Carrey: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of…so they can see that it’s not the answer.” While King David thought this his crowning achievement would be building an edifice in the capital he had founded, instead he learned that his descendants would be the greatest legacy to survive him. And some 3000 years later, we still sing, David Melech Yisrael, chai ve-kayam, “David, King of Israel lives on.”
The third example in classic Jewish texts of the unfinished comes from the time of the early rabbis, a thousand years after King David It is the story of Honi Ha-Me’agel. Honi was a kind of Jewish Johnny Appleseed – he went around the Holy Land planting carob trees.[i] One day someone asked Honi how long it would take for the tree to grow tall and bear fruit. He replied, “Seventy years!” The next question was, “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” Honi answered, “I found carob trees in the world; as my ancestors planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.”
Now our Jewish Jonny Appleseed (or carob-seed) turned into Rip Van Winkle. An afternoon nap turns into 70 years, and when awakens, the tree is fully grown and bearing fruit. Honi realizes what’s going on and journeys to his village which is now so changed as to be almost unrecognizable. He enters the House of Study and tries to convince people who he is, but no one believes him or honors him. This hurts Honi so much that he prays for death. The Sage Raba notes, “Hence the saying: Either companionship or death.” (oh chevruta oh mituta). It was better to plant for an unseen future than to actually visit there. If Moses was the idealist, and King David the achiever, Honi was what philosophers call an effective altruist, doing things for the good of people he never expected to meet.
The story of Honi has been rediscovered in an age of environment concern, along with the holiday of Tu Bishvat, the New Year of Trees. We are like Honi every time we plant a seed, real or metaphorical, for something in the future without needing to know what that future will be like or who will be the ultimate beneficiary of our work.
When I meditate, I’m told to “be here now.” But being happy in the here and now actually depends on knowing that there is something bigger than us that outlasts us. According to philosophy professor Samuel Scheffler, author of Why Worry About Future Generations?, knowing that we aren’t the completion, that life continues after us, is critical to our happiness and feelings of value and meaning in the present. He suggests various scenarios: if we knew that we would live a great life, but the human race wouldn’t last much longer, through violent or even peaceful means, we would become depressed and lose much of our meaning in life.
According to Prof. Scheffler, because we take this belief in the future for granted, “we don’t think much about its significance. Yet …this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments, and sense of what is worth doing. Astonishing though it may seem, there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after our deaths — even that of complete strangers — matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.” And that’s why knowing that we are part of efforts that may take generations, from scientific discovery to social justice, give life greater meaning, not less.
This is something secular society seems to be discovering as our future is threatened by climate change. But as Jews, we have always been blessed with a consciousness of the links between generations, what we owe the past and what we want to convey to the future: the chain of tradition, the legacy of values and ideas, the Masoret, literally that which is passed on from one generation to the next.
We aren’t Moses or King David or even Honi Ha Me’agel. But like Moses, we can devote our whole lives to our ideals, while knowing that we will end up passing the work of a better society to the next generation. Reflecting on King David, we can realize that no matter how impressive our career achievements, our greatest satisfaction may the relationships that will live on after us. And like Honi Ha-Me’agel, knowing that we are doing the best to provide a healthy and beautiful environment for future generations can allow us to truly enjoy the blessings of life, right in the here and now.
[i] The Talmud’s original Aramaic is ambivalent if he was doing the planting or learning from someone else doing so. (Bavli Taanit 23a)