Neither to Finish Nor to Desist

“[T]he day is long and the work is great and we’re not commanded to finish the work, but neither are we allowed to desist from it.”

— Arnold Eisen, quoting a favorite passage of his and Rabbi Heschel’s from the Talmud (via On Being)


Our modern culture doesn’t do well with the idea of joining a project in midstream, helping out as we can, and leaving before the work is complete.

We optimize, project-manage, and Get Things Done. We cross items off of our lists. We like completion. We like the credit that comes with it.

Our wisdom traditions know better. The world — and the work — existed before any of us got here, and they will exist long after we are gone.

“We’re not commanded to finish the work:” we don’t have to take projects so small as to ensure completion, regardless of efficacy. And we don’t have to ram big projects to completion, regardless of externalities or downstream harm.

“But neither are we allowed to desist from it:” complexity and compromise are facts of life, and can’t be used as excuses to hide from the work. Better to help advance the Sagrada Familia than to add a few more twigs to our own lean-to just because it is ours, or we can declare completion.

Perhaps great works are never really finished. Perhaps that’s part of what makes them great.

Perhaps we could give ourselves permission to begin — even and especially when we can’t finish the work alone.