A few days ago, my son, Jeremy, was drawing a picture. He took a picture of a robot and was coloring it in. I walked by him and noticed the bright colors and interesting pattern. I also noticed that his drawing skills were improving, relative to when he was younger. “I love the picture you’re making,” I said. He replied, “You don’t really love it because it’s not finished.”
A while later, he came to me, and excitedly presented the completed picture, his eyes sparkling, and said: “Now, you’re really going to love the picture.” Again, I told him that I did.
In this week’s Torah portion, called Ki Tissa (when you take), the people are waiting for a masterpiece to be completed. At the foot of Mount Sinai, they anticipated Moses’ descent with the Ten Commandments. Moses told them he would return in 40 days, and on the fortieth day, when he hadn’t returned, the people panicked. They built an idol, a golden calf, and began to worship it. One wonders, what got into the people? Couldn’t they have waited another day or two? Why were they willing to give up so easily on the covenant?
The answer is one Yiddish word: Shpilkes. This word sounds like a disease (like herpes or leprosy). However, this term describes a feeling of antsy-ness. When you’ve been waiting for something so long that you can’t stand it anymore and feel as though you’re going to lose your mind, that’s shpilkes!
The people at Mount Sinai came down with a collective case of shpilkes. They got frustrated because they couldn’t see concretely the results of the covenant, so they made something that they could see right away. They donated gold jewelry and made a statue. Trying to stall them, Aaron announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord.” They could wait until the next morning, but no longer. They wanted results, and they wanted them now.
Like Jeremy, we often think that our efforts aren’t worthwhile until they’re done. Like the people, we get frustrated when projects take longer than we thought they would. The parsha warns us against the danger of shpilkes. It reminds us that all good projects take time. Inscribing the Ten Commandments took 40 days. Crossing the desert to the Promised Land took 40 years. And even then, they weren’t done. When the people finally received the Torah, they faced the challenge of living by its precepts. When they reached the Promised Land, they struggled to settle the land and create a new society.
Similarly, the most important projects of our lives are time consuming. Pregnancy takes 40 weeks. Just when we think the baby will never emerge, it finally comes and we discover that it’s just the beginning. Raising a child takes at least eighteen years. However, parents often discover that they’re still not done; their role shifts but the job isn’t over. Indeed, the biggest projects of our lives are never complete. The task of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is never finished; likewise the task of tikkun atzmi (refining the self) is a lifelong endeavor.
We are all artworks in progress. So when you take stock of your life, remember that God loves our handiwork, even when it’s not finished.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.