Over the past few weeks, a lot of sad faces were peering at their screens as two popular television shows came to an end. Two HBO staples, “Succession” and “Barry,” aired their season finales in late May. And as happens with all high-drama prestige television, the debates began the moment the episode was over. Did Kendall deserve what he got? Was justice served for Mr. Cousineau? Without revealing any details, it is fair to say that many fans were left with that gnawing feeling of an unresolved ending.
TV endings were not always this way. Decades before “The Sopranos” famously concluded with its cut to black, shows typically concluded with a nice emotional ribbon — loose ends tied up, characters discovering the promised land. On “Cheers,” Sam returned to his bar. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” ended with an actual group hug. On “Friends,” Ross and Rachel finally got together. “M*A*S*H,” still the most watched television finale of all time, ended with the main character finally returning home, wistfully looking from a helicopter to the word “goodbye” spelled out in stone. The episode was aptly titled, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.”
Then everything got darker and grittier. Today, TV fans have come to expect unsettling, unresolved and even unhinged endings to their favorite shows. I am here to say that such conclusions are quintessentially Jewish. The Torah itself is an ode to unresolved endings.
As you may already know, the Torah concludes (spoiler alert!) with the death of Moses on the edge of the promised land. I take it for granted now, but imagine reading this for the first time. What?! The leader of the Jewish people, who brought them out of Egypt, received the Torah on Sinai and led them through the desert for 40 years doesn’t live happily ever after in the promised land?
Why does the Torah end the way it does?
If the Torah were an HBO show, fans would have been outraged. Shouldn’t the final scene have seen Moses walking arm and arm with the Jewish people across the Jordan River, the sun slowly setting as the credits roll? Instead, we are left with our beloved leader buried right outside the land he yearned to enter. Why does the Torah end this way?
Franz Kafka — himself no stranger to unresolved endings (The Trial” ends with Joseph K. being beaten “like a dog”)— took an interest in this question. He writes:
The dying vision of it can only be intended to illustrate how incomplete a moment is human life, incomplete because a life like this could last forever and still be nothing but a moment. Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life is too short but because it is a human life.
“Veiled and unveiled, he remains lodged in the Jewish imagination, where, in his uncompleted humanity, he comes to represent the yet-unattained but attainable messianic future.”Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg
In Kafka’s reading, the Torah’s ending reflects the larger reality of human life itself, which is “nothing but a moment,” an exercise in incompleteness. Our personal narratives don’t fit neatly into a box. They don’t have ribbons on top and rarely end with group hugs. Human life ends unrequited, ever yearning, ever hoping. As Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes in her magisterial biography of Moses: “Veiled and unveiled, he remains lodged in the Jewish imagination, where, in his uncompleted humanity, he comes to represent the yet-unattained but attainable messianic future.”
And that is perhaps why I love abrupt endings most. They reflect the fabric of life itself. As David Foster Wallace once observed of Kafka’s narratives, they emphasize “[t]hat our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.” What is more human than an ending that just recursively folds into another beginning of longing and hoping? Moses’ unrealized dream and legacy continues, and begins again, in the minds and hearts of those captured by his story.
So save your group hugs for sitcoms. Real life doesn’t have a neat ending. We continue the journey where the last generation left off. An ending that perpetually endures.