"Yours is not to complete
the work, but neither are you
free to abstain from it."
-- Rabbi Tarphon from the Pirket Avot (2:21), via Joel Lewis
as found in the Anselm Hollo section of The Poet's Notebook: excerpts from the notebooks of contemporary American poets edited by Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tal and David Weiss
I've come across this quote three times recently. The first time I copied it into my own notebook. The second time I researched it a little to get the context and found it less interesting. There are different translations on the web. According to Joseph I. Gorfinkle's Sayings of the Jewish Fathers, the most complete version I found, Rabbi Tarfon says, "It is not thy duty to complete the work, but neither art thou free to desist from it; if thou hast studied much Torah, much reward will be given thee; and faithful is thy Employer to pay thee the reward of thy labor; and know that the grant of reward unto the righteous will be in the time to come.”
The shorter (& more popular) version of Tarfon/Tarphon's words has resonance for the non-Jew in that it places the individual in the context of a community, a communal effort, acknowledging the effort that is not decisive, but admonishing the worker not to give up just because the completion of the task (if there ever will be such) may fall to another. It assumes there will be continuity, posterity. It tells you that you are not alone in your efforts and that success does not depend solely upon you. I found the sentiment touching, reassuring.
Though I have no particular thoughts on the labor over Torah or rewards in the "time to come," I do find the shorter quote worth attention. There is not much we complete, really. Even when a finite object, like a car or a beautiful vase, is the goal, something that seems as capable of completion as anything can be, the goal achieved becomes but one point in an ongoing process. We are not complete in ourselves. We are processes, we are phenomena. We do not exist but in the midst of others, a world both human and not. This may be less true of a car or vase, which, once set, does not grow and change but without its context neither has a purpose. We took on tasks left incomplete by others. People who will take on our tasks will likewise help give meaning to the work already done, continue it, and, in a way perhaps, complete it.