I recently heard a quote from the Talmud that resonated with me:
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.
I am not a religious scholar. I could not tell you the difference between the Torah and the Talmud, although I’m sure I’ve heard it described. But wisdom and truth are pretty much universal–they call to us when we hear them, and if we listen with an open mind, we can hear the call whatever the source.
This verse could easily be taken as a sentence of punishment, a vengeful God’s sentence of eternal work against all of us for a pile of infractions committed by our oldest ancestors. After all, if we can’t finish, what’s the point?
I choose to take it as a message of hope, instead: the work is worth doing, even if I never finish.
Which means the work itself is both the goal and the reward.
This goes against so much of what we cling to today. Work, we tell ourselves, is a means to an end. We work so we can have more money, more freedom, so we can afford shelter for our families and education for our children. We work so we can have nice things, cars and TVs and pieces of art and game consoles. We work so that, one day, we can quit working and sit in a rocking chair with a glass of iced tea. We work to build something, or repair something, or help someone have something they didn’t have before. And in most of the work we do, there comes a moment when we can step back, put our hands on our hips, look at what we’ve accomplished, and say with a sense of satisfaction, it’s enough. I’m finished. The idea of work we can’t complete, work we do simply because it’s worth doing, goes against the lessons that pelt us every day.
But we all have work we can’t complete, or work whose completion we measure in years and decades, work with such a long time horizon that if we focus on the end we’ll never be able to get there. Parenting is the most obvious–my role as a parent may change when my kids leave the house, but it will never end until my death. And even then it won’t be complete. But I embrace the work, as almost all parents do, and I focus on what my kids need today.
There are other areas where the work is its own reward. Self-development. Exploration. Mentorship. Leadership. Education. Agriculture.
Much of the most important work we do falls into this category. It’s easy to get frustrated at this work, easy to throw up our hands and give up. Easier still to tell ourselves we’ll do it tomorrow, then let a year or a decade of tomorrows pile up while we’re not paying attention.
It takes courage to do it today, courage and resolve and fortitude to tell ourselves this is what’s important. I need to do this. Today. Even if something else must go undone.
You may never complete your work. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Do not desist.