A waiter remembers every detail of an order but forgets those details as soon as the plates hit the table. Inspired by this thought experiment, German psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik conducted a series of laboratory tests to demonstrate that people have a better recollection of the puzzles they are prevented from finishing than those they have completed. Evidently, our brains are wired to be preoccupied with the details of incomplete tasks. We have a deep-seated need to see things to the end. The human condition is to not be satisfied, to not let our minds rest, until we do what we set out do to.
The problem is, very often we don’t. Very often, for whatever reason, we simply aren’t able to reach the finish line.
One of our great sages of the twentieth century, Rav Eliyahu Dessler, writes, “We are born in the middle of things and we die in the middle of things.” Friends – life is messy. Full of loose ends, false starts, unfulfilled objectives. The question is, what should our attitude be to this unsatisfying state of affairs?
In this week’s Torah portion, Masei, G-d gives Moshe the mitzvah of designating the cities of refuge – safe spaces for those who have inadvertently taken a life to escape to, to seek refuge from avenging parties and for atonement. There were six cities of refuge to be established – three east of the Jordan River and three west of the Jordan River. The eastern territory had already been conquered by this stage, and to get things started, Moshe was tasked with establishing these first three cities. He did this with great enthusiasm, knowing that he would never get to establish the three western cities, because G-d had decreed that he would not cross the Jordan River and lead the Jewish people into the land of Israel. That mission was left to his successor, Joshua.
Analysing the verse, Rashi comments that the six cities were a single bloc, and that none of the cities would be operational until all six were established. This means that the three eastern cities that Moshe set up did not become operational until Joshua conquered the western side of the Jordan River and established the other three. In other words, not only did Moshe not have the chance to complete the task, he never got to see any of the fruits of his efforts realised. The Gemara (Makot 10a) says this was a mark of Moshe’s greatness – that his passion for fulfilling G-d’s will was such that he threw himself into the task of establishing these cities even though he knew he would never complete it.
The obvious lesson here is that we need to savour each moment, each accomplishment, each step along our life’s journey. On the one hand, it’s good to be goal-oriented and to keep an eye on the destination. On the other hand, we cannot be consumed with our goals to the point where we are unable to savour the small moments and the small victories. Because these small moments and small victories are an important part of our lives.
Every moment of life is precious. We learn this from pikuach nefesh – the principle that virtually all of the Torah’s laws are suspended in order to save a life. Even if it’s to prolong that life for a few moments. Life is nothing but the sum of small moments. Each moment is sacred because life is sacred.
Torah learning provides a good illustration of the importance of small moments and small victories. The Mishna teaches that the mitzvah of learning Torah has no fixed limit. The Vilna Gaon has a novel reading of the Mishna. He says that this teaching applies at both ends of the spectrum – there is no upper limit on the amount of Torah one can learn, but there is also no minimum amount; each word of Torah we learn is a distinct mitzvah with eternal value.
Kindness is another example. We have a Torah mandate to make this world a kinder, gentler place. But the mitzvah of chesed is fulfilled through incremental actions and gestures – a kind word, a small gesture, a brief embrace. Tzedakah is another example – a mitzvah performed one coin at a time. And prayer. It is made up of many individual words. Each of which has its own meaning and opportunity for devotion and connection to G-d.
We see this principle articulated most explicitly in the Mishna in Pirkei Avot: “It is not on you to complete the work, but nor are you free to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:16). Though the Mishnah is referring specifically to the mitzvah of Torah learning, which being G-d’s infinite wisdom, by definition can never fully be comprehended or “completed”, it applies no less to every mitzvah we perform, and all of the objectives we pursue over the course of our lives. “We are born in the middle of things and we die in the middle of things.”
This could also be the message at the beginning of our Torah portion, Masei, which chronicles the journey of the Jewish people in the desert in painstaking detail. Each leg, each stopover of the 40-year journey is mentioned by name. Why is that? If anything there’s good reason not to dwell on the drawn-out journey, which only became necessary because of the sin of the spies. But perhaps the verse does so to underline that each step of a journey is important, each moment is significant, each mitzvah is a milestone. We should not look at life as one unit. We should savour each of its components.
The arc of Moshe’s life embodies this idea. He was appointed with the mandate to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, bring them to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, and then to lead them into the land of Israel. Due to events in the desert, Moshe’s mandate to lead the people into Israel was transferred to Joshua. And so in a certain fundamental sense his mission was incomplete. The fairytale ending would have been Moshe triumphantly leading the people into the land of Israel. But the Torah is a book of truth. It’s a description of life as it is. And in real life “We are born in the middle of things, and we die in the middle of things.” There are no neat beginnings and endings, no neat resolutions. G-d is the master of the universe and it is not in our hands to complete our arcs and wrap up our lives in a neat little bow. All we can do is focus on and appreciate each moment; take each task and each mitzvah one at a time; ensure we win life’s small victories.
All we can do is live with complete faith that Hashem will give us the time we need on this earth to do what we need to do – what we were born to do – even if it feels messy and unsatisfactory, even if it feels that things are incomplete.
The key is to live with humility and appreciation – the humility that comes with understanding that we don’t control everything, and the appreciation that comes with savouring each moment and each small victory. And we need to encourage that attitude in our children. To encourage them in each milestone accomplished, each mitzvah performed, each moment of grace and kindness, no matter how seemingly small.
As Jews, we believe in a Final Redemption – an era of the Messiah, in which the world is perfected, peace and closeness to G-d reign on earth, and human history is brought to a glorious close. We all long for such a time. And yet there is only one generation that will merit to witness this closure. We hope and pray that we are that generation – that the redemption happens today – and yet we carry on with our lives with the peace of mind that every good deed we do, every step we take in the right direction, every small difference we make in improving the world we live in is part of the unfolding of human history and leading inexorably towards the time we all long for.
It’s about the small steps on the journey of life.