There is a rabbinic teaching that when we build a home, we should leave a little bit of the house unfinished. This was to be a reminder of the destruction of the Temple. More broadly, it captures the reality that life is unfinished, that all good things are incomplete.
Shabbat is another reminder that things are never finished. Rabbi Tarfon’s famous saying is, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Interestingly, while there are several words for “work” in Hebrew, the word that he chose for “work” is the precise term that the Torah uses for the tasks that we are not allowed to do on Shabbat. Since Shabbat is one of the Ten Commandments, it is a big mitzvah 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. The fact is that life is finite, and we need 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 Holy Days, too, remind us that our life is limited. Prayers like Unetaneh Tokef 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 is 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 that gives our lives meaning.
Each of us has a lot to consider during the coming holidays. May your time in thought and prayer bring you insight, inspiration, and a renewed sense of purpose as we enter the Jewish New Year.
L’Shana Tova! May God bless you and yours in 5784.
Rabbi Jordan Goldson