I've been concerned with a number of paradoxes recently. Here's one: Our tradition looks forward to a time of perfection, yet is willing to accept the reality of a world filled with people forever struggling to achieve it. I have come to imagine that this perfectionist's acceptance of incompleteness is woven, like the nubs of raw silk, into the fabric of our existence.
Have you ever been interrupted? Do you ever feel you haven't had a chance to finish something? Did you ever get the sense that there was still a detail that needed a bit of touch-up? Me too. In fact, scientists tell us that the universe itself is not finished. It continues to expand and grow in ways that we don't understand.
Yet, Torah tells us: [Gen. 2:1-2] The heaven and earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work which God had been doing and ceased on the seventh day from all the work which God had done.
But we know that God wasn't finished. Had that been all, there would be no story and we wouldn't be here today.
Torah continues and in the second story of creation God goes ahead and creates Adam. But he's certainly unfinished, Adam needs Eve. He's sick without her. One of my favorite extensions of the text is by the poet Karl Shapiro who writes of Adam's tension about whether or not he is finished:
In the beginning, at every step, he turned
As if by instinct to the East to praise
The nature of things. Now every path was learned
He lost the lifted, almost flower-like gaze
Of a temple dancer. He began to walk
Slowly, like one accustomed to be alone.
He found himself lost in the field of talk;
Thinking became a garden of its own.
Adam fell down with labor in his bones.
And God approached him in the cool of day
And said, "This sickness in your skeleton
Is longing. I will remove it from your clay."
Later, these humans go out into the world and God makes us, their descendents, partners in the work of creation: repairing the world, Tikkun Olam.
I don't know the precise impetus that caused this wisdom, this knowledge of our perpetual incompleteness to become such a significant feature of our Jewish culture. Some suggest that it comes after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70. Since then, in memory or commemoration of the destroyed Temple we are to leave a corner of our homes unfinished. But which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the rabbis' awareness of the incompleteness of all creation precede the destruction and did the ancient rabbis use the destruction as a hook on which to hang this wisdom?
Two thousand years ago the earliest rabbis taught about the perpetually unfinished nature of our existence when they wrote in the blessing we say at the beginning of each day: "In goodness God renews the work of creating continually, day by day." And at the end of our daily meditations both evening and morning, in our services we understand that we are to continue as God's partners when we recite in the Aleinu:
"To repair the world under God's guidance."
In a couple of weeks we'll build our Sukkot. Their walls remain unfinished, only two and a half are necessary. The ceiling needs to be somewhat open to the sky. As the fullness of the Sukkot moon begins to wane we'll live within this incomplete home and be joyous in our festival.
On Pesach, six months from now, we'll ask four questions, drink four cups of wine, do all the right things that make for an appropriate Seder. At the end we'll repeat, once again: "next year in Jerusalem." And, yet, the following year, we'll be in our homes, here, a bit closer to the liberation for which we strive, but.... And those who live in Jerusalem say "next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem." But, if that means they're waiting for the Temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem, they have a very long wait. The year goes 'round and we seem imperceptibly closer to our goals.
At the time of Shavuot at the time of the fulfillment of the harvest our tradition expects that some sheaves will drop. And we're to skip the corners entirely. We will never gather in all of our crop. Whatever's dropped, whatever's left behind, must remain. It is not for us.
We Jews understand the ideal of being a finished person, we talk of goals, but we understand that we may never quite get there. We have these days of introspection and awe, and the process of teshuvah, turning, to deal with our imperfections. For like the Sukkah, there are gaps in our lives, crevices in our relationships.
There are odd people in our world who consider themselves "Completed Jews." This, however, is an oxymoron. The notion that we can be finished is false. Do we ever finish? Do we ever perfect ourselves? In a sense, Christian theology sees itself as the completion of Judaism. And, if that makes the Christians feel better, so be it. Actually, Jews are not complete; perhaps Christians are. So, the view presented by these "Hebrew" Christians that we are "incomplete" is not only accurate, but just fine and dandy with me! No Jew is complete. We are all, as reb Abraham Maslow wrote, in the process of becoming.
When Shabbat begins, any tasks you have been involved in are left "unfinished." It is amazing, I know of only one task that we must finish. The ancient rabbis tell us that when the messiah comes, if you are busy plating a tree you must complete that before going to greet the messiah.
We are always in the process of becoming. We are always working on projects. Sometimes we don't finish a project. We may lose interest, become distracted, or called away. Why did Schubert not finish his symphony? It wasn't his last. An artist works on a piece and at some time must decide that it is time to release it. That "arbitrary" moment of decision determines that it is finished.
An expectant mother releases a newborn. Whether premature or full term, the child is not "finished" and cannot live on its own. Our lives progress, sometimes we may feel as though we are a canvas upon which God paints: sometimes broad strokes with deep colors, at other times, pointilistically in pastels. At each moment God brings different aspects to the foreground to highlight different meanings in our lives. We could say that history is God's story. Frank Kermode in his book The Sense of An Ending writes "All human beings are born and die in the midst, in the middle of history. Therefore, we make up stories to give meaning to life and to humanize the common death."
Regardless of how old we may be, our lives always seem unfinished works. New parts of the story begin and weave new tales. We always have more to learn and to create. Why do our lives end, why do we die? Does God lose interest in us as characters? I don't have the answer to this question (other than, perhaps, to make room for newcomers). But our tradition offers a response to the way we can live in the face of the fact that we will never finish.
The book of Proverbs tells us to "number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom." Not knowing when our "allotted days" are up, we may take out long term care insurance and learn to live each day as if it were the last always ready to express our full repentance for our actions.
Yet, how often does it occur that death allows little time for finishing business, for making amends, for doing what needs to be done. Inevitably we leave something unsaid, or undone.
That's not our problem at this time. Our task now is to learn how to strike the balance between our own goal of perfection and the realization that we are finite beings who will never achieve the completeness for which we strive.
The Hassidic Belzer Rebbe gave many years of his life to build his synagogue. With his own hands he mixed the mortar and formed the bricks, and the other workers were also Hassidim of long-standing. The synagogue was not completed either by Rabbi Shalom of Belz, or by his son and successor, Rabbi Joshua, or by the latter's successors. Legend declares that it will not be completed until the messiah will come, and it will then be transported to the Holy Land. Many people of wealth have offered to give money towards its completion, but the Belzer determined to allow all comers to have a share in it, rather than the few.
Biologists tell us that every cell in our body gets renewed within a seven year period. As the Belzer mixed the mortar to build a synagog he never finished, so we form the cells, the building blocks of our physical lives the physical sanctuary that we will never finish. May we approach our task with deep awareness of the wonders that we house within.