Of the thousands of victims of COVID-19, many thousands were the victims not exactly of the virus itself, but of sheer stupidity, misinformation, arrogance, and ill-preparedness. But in a way, a victim of none of the above was Sam Cohen, the lox man at New York’s famous emporium, Zabar’s. Because of his age, 90+, Sam was forced to retire. Mr. Zabar sadly refused to risk Sam’s life by exposing him to both the known and the unknown in one of the hotbeds of the pandemic.

To those who owed their lox slicing skills to this dedicated artisan, one lesson was drilled into their performance behind the counter. BEGIN WITH THE END. Len Berk, a CPA turned lox man and a protégé of Sam, explains why:

I teach my customers that ends aren’t really “ENDS” at all. They’re “BEGINNINGS!” Smoked fish is usually sliced from tail to head — the closer to the head, the more succulent the meat. The end is really the beginning, to the tastiest part of the fish. If it’s good eating you’re after, it’s BEGINNINGS all the way.[1]

Obviously, this is our season of beginning, Rosh Hashanah its fanfare, Yom Kippur, a grand finale. Our days of awe bid us focus on what we want out of the year to come, and more poignantly, what we want out of the rest of our lives. Which brings us, even more poignantly to contemplate our end, to contemplate the legacy of our soul.

In doing so, we will find ourselves in the company of Bartok, Beethoven, Borodin, Busoni, Chausson, Debussy, de Falla, Delibes, Donizetti, Ives, Mozart, Mussorgsky, Offenbach, Prokofiev, Puccini, Respighi, Schoenberg, Schubert, Scriabin, and Tchaikovsky — to name a few of the stars in the firmament of music. You see, each one of these composers left behind an unfinished opus. Many, if not most of their uncompleted works were completed by successor composers, though the most notable of them ascended to the realm of unparalleled beauty in its uncompleted form, namely, Franz Schubert’s unfinished creation, Symphony No. 8 in B minor.

The same could be said of creations by famous authors, sculptors, painters, and architects. So we will also find ourselves in the company of the likes of Dickens, da Vinci, Raphael, and Gaudi, respectively. For in our own ways, we are authors, sculptors, painters, and architects, too — authors, sculptors, painters, and architects of our souls. Some of our unfinished business will be polished or amplified by our heirs seeking to be true to our intentions, if not to our actual accomplishments. Some of our unfinished business will be left just as it was, unfinished and untouched.

The reasons for incompleteness are rather mundane. On the one hand, death indiscriminately and finally puts and end to our efforts. On the other hand, a striving for the unattainable, a striving for perfection, may leave behind just as many ellipses as bars, may leave behind just as many erasures as notes. In the wake of either, of death or perfection, undulates a trail of tears which only the passage of years will dry.

Until then, in beginning at the end, we are bidden to find abiding satisfaction in our strivings, appreciation for our temporary accomplishments. Undeniably, our strivings and accomplishments are adjudged by others. When burnished, they become our eulogies. Yet, no less so, our strivings and accomplishments are adjudged by us.

The two adjudications are hardly separable. The narcissist lives in a world in which only his or her reflection is perceptible to the critical eye. The rest of us mortals viscerally respond, as in some way we ought, to the boos and the bravos, the jeers and cheers of the crowd — of our family, our friends, our neighbors, and yea, our God. In their own way, our family, friends, neighbors, and yea, our God, are keepers of the curtain calls. But unlike the narcissist, eventually we must each answer to the call of our own conscience, to the call of lovingkindness to which only the sociopath is deaf.

Not only here and not only now, but certainly here and now, we aim not to assuage our insufficiencies, but to prick our conscience. Not to engage in self-foolery, but to wrestle with honesty. Not to pooh-pooh the pans or bathe in the raves, but to attend to room for improvement.

As Rabbi Tarfon reminded us:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה

It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.
– Avot 2.16

Meaning: We are composing a symphony without a coda, yet, if we try, it will not be wanting in beauty and inspiration.


[1] https://forward.com/culture/ 444817/the-end-is-actually-the-beginning-and-other-life-lessons-from-the-zabars/