I’m writing this Friday night as I wait to leave for Kol Nidre, the start of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the final moment before the book is closed for another year. It’s fitting then, I suppose, that I should be reading the last teaching from the second book of the Pirkei Avot tonight. Today, when you read this, two gates will close.
2.21 This was a favorite teaching of his:
Your are not obligated to finish the task,
neither are you free to neglect it.
If you have studied much Torah, your reward will be abundant.
Your Employer can be relied upon to reward you for your labors.
Know, however, that the reward of the righteous is in a future time.
Reading this, I find it beautiful and fitting for the evening, for the day. Last week, Rabbi Tarfon spoke about workers and rewards, as he reiterates here, but what shines to me is not the study of Torah, which I have also spoken about on many occasions, or reliable employers, but how this teaching begins, and how this teaching ends.
I can recall, growing up, watching TV shows portray the classical family table, and before the kids could be excused, they had to finish what’s on their plate. And being the perfectionist that I am, I hate to leave anything lingering that I have not yet finished. Open endings are like black holes to me. They’ll draw me in and I’ll never be able to escape their captivity until I can draw my responsibilities to a close and watch them evaporate around me.
The idea, then, that I am not obligated to finish the task is a hard one for me to swallow. And yet, all the time, I see this happening–and I’m a part of it as I watch it occur. When the tutor before me leaves, I take his place, and when it’s my turn to go, another fills my absence. I set down roots of leadership and try to build up and encourage those who follow me, that they may continue serving those I represent even after I move along. I teach my students faithfully for the year, but when the year is past, they are given unto a new grade, a new teacher, a new path to follow.
All these things that I have begun, that I have walked with and trod alongside, these things are tasks too great for a single person to accomplish and only by each of us playing our part can the system be successful.
However many others might be there to fill in for me and to follow and precede me, I am not free to neglect my responsibilities. If I fail to do my part, others must do more than their share–and not only does that hurt them, it hurts the people that together we’re trying to help. And it hurts me, because I have lost an opportunity to grow, and to serve, and to make a difference in this world. I may not need to finish the task, but I still must play my part in it.
This does not absolve me of my obligation to commit. Just because I must do my part does not mean I can do it with laziness or with sloth. I must stand up tall and proud and do my part as if it’s the only thing on earth that I must do, that I must do it with faith and passion and ambition, and with care and tenderness and compassion. If we each do all we need to do, at the bare minimum, nothing will change, nothing will ever be born. Only in working to do our best, in empowering those around us, in being an example for those who follow us, can we make a difference.
This is such a beautiful thought, it’s filled me a sudden sense of ecstasy and excitement, a new longing and eagerness for the hundred things I still must do this weekend, for the hundred things people are waiting on me to do next week. It’s not merely myself I’m acting on account of. Sure, I have made my promises, but I haven’t made them to aid myself; I’ve made them to help others. I know now I don’t need to change the world or rewrite history: I need only play my part to this end, put my hand in the circle and lend what strength I can to make a differences . I will lead, and I will guide, and I will teach and be taught, and throughout all of this, I will learn, and I will live, and history will be paved out beneath our feet as I move along and then pass the road on to each of you.
Time is infinite, but human life is temporary. We must make the most of it and move on. We must put our lives into the chaos and bring order to that which surrounds us. We must each play our part in this world, for what we will find in the end is that the reward of the righteous truly is in a future time.
There’s a Jewish belief that after the Messiah has come, in the world to come the righteous will rise and live again. I don’t know if I believe this. I believe we have distorted the Messiah into a figurehead, a poster child that will never see the light of day, for the world has changed past the brink of who the Messiah is meant to be.
But I still believe a time will come when what the Messiah was meant to achieve will be achieved. It won’t come from a single man, however, but a series of lifetimes, of men and women, of different people working together to make the world all it’s meant to be. A new temple will be built, but maybe it won’t be the temple we imagine today. All people will rejoice in God’s name, but maybe not in the way we think today. All wars will only be fragments and reflections of history, but maybe not how we foresee it today.
We can’t imagine that day, it’s far-off and outside this world. But I believe that world is not our only reward; I believe the rewards Rabbi Tarfon speaks of are not the rewards of the world to come, but the rewards that follow us in this time, the rewards of change and progress that life will not grant us the right to witness.
When we do our part in this world, when we create and provide and teach and discover, when we fulfill our responsibilities so fully that those who follow us to complete the tasks that we have played a part in continuing, they will prosper where we faced challenges. They will succeed where we have failed. They will tackle problems and crises we cannot even begin to imagine. But they will do all of this with our work as their foundation, and when finally, many generations from now, these tasks are completed, it will have been our work that helped make it possible, our work that set the stage for the world to come to finally arrive.
These things we’re fighting for, these causes we stand behind and these goals we aim at, it’s our responsibility to do our part in making them reality, but if we do not achieve them in our time, our efforts have not been for naught. Our efforts will be rewarded when those who follow us continue our work and continue it to completion.
The world may now be chaotic and cruel, but if we stand for what is right and for what is true, when we have passed on into the next life, those behind us will step forward and continue our fight. There is seemingly no end to the cycle, but once the cycle has found that far-off end, we will all be rewarded, for the world of our children and our children’s children and their children, too, will be the world we’ve been waiting for.
Tonight, two gates will close. The gates of heaven will swing shut for a new year, and the pages of this chapter of the Pirkei Avot will finally fall upon each other. But this is not the end. It is only a stepping stone on this journey we follow. New things will come. New challenges, new opportunities, new doorways to walk through and new pages to read. There is no such thing as a true ending. Only when we give up is it over. Until then, every moment is a new beginning.