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 I have often been perplexed by the statement of the rabbis in Avot that says: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, “ as there is another statement of the rabbis of the Talmud that if one begins to do a good deed, one should persevere to complete it. So, what should our attitude towards unfinished business be? And should a project or endeavor be started when it may be clear that it will be unable to be completed in one’s lifetime. Here we have another statement of the Talmud about a man that was planting a tree that would take 70 years to mature and produce fruit. When he was asked why he was doing so, for in the course of human mortality he would not live long enough to benefit from the tree, he answered that his forefathers had planted such trees before him and that he was therefore planting such a tree for the benefit of later generations that would succeed him.

But psychologically speaking, there is an emptiness in creating a project or pursuing a goal, spiritually or physically, which will never be realized in one's lifetime. Because of our mortal nature we are always short-term and short-range creatures. We always are determined to complete what we have begun and if we feel that we will not be able to do so, we are more than willing not to begin it all. However, I feel that this attitude, common and even practical as it may seem, is inherently wrong and, in fact, not very Jewish.
I once heard from the great Rabbi of Ponovezh, Rabbi Kahaneman, that one should always be engaged in a new project no matter what stage in life one has already achieved. He said to me that if Heaven was aware that one is engaged in a new project that would benefit the Jewish people and the world at large then that person would gain advocates in Heaven who would argue that the person be allowed to continue to live in order to fulfill that project. He said he was always engaged in building a new school or yeshiva or children's home even though he did not always have the necessary funds, nor was he certain that at his age he would ever survive long enough to witness the completion of the project.
So, unfinished business is good business in the Jewish world and in the eyes of Jewish tradition. One should always have new ideas and plans for personal growth and communal benefit. I noticed that some of the great financiers and entrepreneurs in today's world are advanced in years. Nevertheless, they remain active in their fields and look forward to somehow achieving even greater wealth and power. As this is true in the tawdry world of money and business, it must certainly be true regarding noble accomplishments in the exalted word of the spirit.
In Judaism, every human being is really dealing in eternity. The fact that we are mortal and limited in time only serves to emphasize the fact that we are really dealing with eternal values and long-range goals and achievements. Those who dreamt of a Jewish state in the land of Israel a century ago certainly did not expect to see it in their lifetime. But they envisioned it for their descendants and for later generations. Every generation of Jews attempts to create projects, institutions and programs that would benefit generations and people that they might not live to see.
This impetus of eternity really governs everything in Jewish life and makes all that we endeavor to do meaningful. It grants even the most mundane of efforts and plans to be instruments of eternal value. The Talmud is certainly correct in telling us that we should attempt to finish what we start in our lifetime. However, we should never lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with eternity and that there is nothing negative in leaving over unfinished business that other generations will then endeavor to complete. And to me, this is a most comforting and satisfying thought.
Shabbat shalom
Berel Wein

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