Shavuot Yizkor: We Are Never Finished

Shavuot Yizkor: We Are Never Finished

(delivered by Rabbi J.B. Sacks on June 13, 2024)


Q: Why couldn’t the prisoner stop talking?

A: He couldn’t finish his sentence.


I had a clock for lunch earlier.

I couldn’t finish it, it was time consuming.


My therapist told me the way to achieve inner peace is to finish what I start.

So I’ve finished two bags of M&M’s and a chocolate cake.

I feel better already.


Finishing things, drawing proper conclusions, figuring out how to end something in a good way is a tough task for many people. This has been our challenge this past year since we announced that my tenure here as rabbi would end at the end of June.

I think we have done a great job of giving ourselves time to process a lot of our feelings, to sense HaShem’s presence through this, to reflect on these past thirteen years, and to realize how much we have grown, even as we have also started dreaming about and planning for what comes next.

I think we have all found ourselves more willing to accept a complicated truth about human life: we are never finished. No long-term project, no personal mission, no ideal to be implemented is ever really complete. We are all works-in-progress, and all of our human endeavors are forever in progress.

This is an essential piece of the human condition. Life is not a middle-school algebra problem, where there is always a simple answer awaiting the one who takes the correct steps. Life is far more complicated. We start new tasks or relationships with zeal and abandon them midstream. Or, we change course. Or, we fall short in living out an important relationship. Or, we are not always the exemplary mensch or Jew we aspire to be.

A beloved rabbinic work, Pirkei Avot, is a collection of rabbinic moral and ethical wisdom that undergirds all rabbinic life and, truthfully, modern Jewish living. Edited around the year 200 C.E., Pirkei Avot is a sure guide on how to be a better person. At the end of the second chapter we learn: הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה, “Rabbi Tarfon taught: ‘It is not your obligation to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.’

This piece of wisdom has guided me through challenging times, personal and professional. It has grounded me when I am facing a particularly daunting pastoral situation, when I grieve, when I start a new project, and pretty much every day, as I face the piles of work on my desk and the many important emails that never seem to resolve themselves. It speaks to the challenges facing the State of Israel, the challenges facing our nation, and, of course, those facing Congregation Am HaYam. Whenever I need to be reminded that the only way to tackle a seemingly insurmountable project is to take on a little at a time and keep moving forward, I think of this mishnah.

And it helps.

I thought of this eternally-useful gem throughout this past year.

  • What are my tasks during this year?
  • What can I manage well?
  • What can I accomplish?

And also so important:

  • What is not mine to do?
  • What is not mine to take on at this time or strive to complete for the right reasons?

The tale of the Jewish people is filled with great figures who died before they completed the projects of their lives:

  • Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses himself, was only able to view the Promised Land from across the Jordan River but never entered it.
  • King David set his heart on building the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, but it was left to his son King Solomon, to do so.
  • Our matriarch Rachel died in childbirth while on the road to Ephrat; she neither reached her destination nor knew her son Benjamin.
  • The Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl died in 1903 at age 44, when he had only just set in motion the forces which would yield a Jewish state 45 years later.
  • Amadeo Modigliani managed only one solo exhibition in his life, gave away his work in exchange for meals, and died destitute

Number of years is not necessarily the measure of success. The successful life is not necessarily the long life. The seeds that we plant which bear fruit long after we are gone are, for us Jews, the better measure.

Our mission, our goals, our ambitions, our hopes, what we strive to be–these are what determines success or failure. How honorably, how nobly, how passionately,  how zestfully, and how fully, one lives, these are the truest measures of who a person is and what defines a kahal, a community, such as Am HaYam.

For me, you have been for me, and we together have been an honorable, noble, passionate, and zestful community. These thirteen years have been priceless and precious.

…Now, as we reflect on the lives of those whom we remember at Yizkor, let us apply the same standard: the true measure of their lives cannot be surmised from noting the hyphen between the dates on their memorial stones. Rather, let us recall how they lived, what they lived for, whom they loved, and the values they strived to impart through their actions. That was who they were; those were the things that they accomplished on this Earth.

And we should all be grateful for that.

Even though Moshe Rabbeinu does not make it to Israel, he is still Moshe Rabbeinu. Even though Herzl will forever lie in Jerusalem, in the modern capital of a nation state which he imagined but never saw, he will always be the one who made it happen.

Furthermore, let us also be kind to ourselves, cut ourselves some slack. No matter how mission-driven we may fashion ourselves, no matter what goals we achieve or what dreams we realize, no matter how dramatically we may feel that we have fallen short, we might place some hope in the fact that those to whom we give love and life may in fact help complete our work on earth after we are gone.

All the moreso: לא עליך המלאכה לגמור. It is not up to you to finish the task, because really, you cannot and I cannot. That is the nature of humanity. And are the most worthy tasks ever really, fully completed anyway?

Our tradition acknowledges this. That is one reason that we read the Torah through every year, even though every time we get to the end we see that Moshe once again fails to enter the Promised Land. We knew that was coming. And yet, Joshua, his anointed successor, makes it.

To what Moses were you Joshua?

To what King David were you King Solomon?

Think for a moment of someone you will be remembering. What was a task or hope or ideal that you continued on after they were gone?

Think of how much naches–joy and pride–they had in their eternal home because of your efforts. I know that this is how I will feel in the desert learning of your joyful efforts to work with Rabbi Goldstein to continue the Torah, the chesed, and the k’dushah that we speak about in our new Mission Statement that we proudly display on our website.

We have to be willing to live with the fact that every conversation dangles, that every argument continues in some way, that our lives are like an ongoing road trip in which we never quite reach our destination, with side roads and dead ends and occasionally getting lost.

So, nu, where does that leave us? What can we do?

We can reach out more fully and completely in love to those who need us.

We can try our best to leave our small corner of the world a little kinder, a little better.

We can aim to fulfill mitzvot, knowing that we will occasionally miss the mark.

And we can feel good that others survive beyond us,

and they will gladly relish the opportunity to further what we have done,

to not finish the task as well, but also not to neglect it either.


You are not finished. I am not finished.


May we be grateful for the unfinished lives of those we now remember, and whose lives we have strived to carry on in some way.


And may we feel deeply satisfied that our thirteen years of Jewish life, prayer, study, celebration, love, honor, and kindness continue on in the next phase of the ongoing, vibrant life on Am HaYam.




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