Defining Tikkun Olam

Rabbi Ron Shulman

A palindrome reads the same backwards as forwards, for example: DO GEESE SEE GOD?

Here’s a wonderful palindrome poem, written by Jonathan Reed. You can find it on You Tube. It was the winner of a contest sponsored by AARP.

First read down the poem’s lines, and then read again from the bottom up.

Lost Generation

by Jonathan Reed

I am part of a lost generation
and I refuse to believe that
I can change the world
I realize this may be a shock but
“Happiness comes from within.”
is a lie, and
“Money will make me happy.”
So in 30 years I will tell my children
they are not the most important thing in my life
My employer will know that
I have my priorities straight because
is more important than
I tell you this
Once upon a time
Families stayed together
but this will not be true in my era
This is a quick fix society
Experts tell me
30 years from now, I will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of my divorce
I do not concede that
I will live in a country of my own making
In the future
Environmental destruction will be the norm
No longer can it be said that
My peers and I care about this earth
It will be evident that
My generation is apathetic and lethargic
It is foolish to presume that
There is hope.

I shared this text with my High School seniors in class this week. I asked them if it rang true. Among them and their peers, is there a cynicism and sense that they’re growing into a world whose problems will overwhelm them?

Happily, collectively, they said, “no.” They were in fact more in sync with the second, the reverse reading of the poem. There is hope, or as the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed, “Yeish tikvah l’aharitekha,” there is hope for the future. Good to hear. I urged them to remember that Judaism is inherently optimistic as a world view, and that looking out over the horizon of their lives, remaining positive and hopeful will serve them well.

Among the many ways our tradition demonstrates this optimism is this. In the mid-sixteenth century, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal of Prague, a teacher of mysticism, proposed that the “whole purpose of Torah is to teach us how to repair the world.” His Hebrew words for “repair the world” were l’taken et haOlam, tikkun olam.

That’s where this familiar and popular Jewish concept comes from. I assume most of us are familiar with it. Many of us use the term, tikkun olam, to describe a motivating element of our personal Jewish identity. But we need to understand. By the Maharal’s definition, repairing the world wasn’t social action or social justice. It was ridding our hearts of evil. It was striving not to behave badly toward one another. It was common sense propriety and proper ritual practice.

As the Prophet Ezekiel declared in this morning’s Haftarah, “A new heart (lev hadash) also will I give you, and a new spirit (ruah hadashah).” Jewish tradition’s classic voices hear in this phrase the urge to goodness, and reverence of God.

Originally, tikkun olam is about honoring and preserving the equitable order of things, correcting aspects of Jewish law that don’t treat people fairly or properly. Tikkun Olam is about being steadfast in response to God. In the twelfth century, Maimonides writes that all of the rulings, customs, and decrees of the oral rabbinic tradition were created “l’hazek hadat,” to strengthen the religion, “u’ltaken haOlam,” and to repair the world.”

The place most of us come across the term, outside of popular usage, is in the Siddur when we recite Aleinu at the end of a service. There we reflect in prayer, asking of God, l’taken olam b’Malkhut Shaddai, to repair the world under Divine sovereignty, meaning, to the fourteenth century author of this prayer, God will fix the world. Our job is to believe, and to advocate for the moral truths that grow out of ethical monotheism.

I’m going somewhat backward in time as I describe the term tikkun olam, from its latest to its earliest appearances in Jewish consciousness; which now takes us all the way back to the Mishnah and the Talmudic era of the first centuries B.C.E where we first discover the term. The head of the rabbinic court, Rabban Gamliel decreed his reasons for matters of family law and personal concern as “mipnei tikkun olam,” for the sake of the world’s order.”

Here’s the point of our survey and learning. To do authentic tikkun olam, at least in the spirit of Jewish tradition, we have to train ourselves to speak not of our general charitable and social action goals, all worthy and important, and instead, focus on a particular problem that requires corrective action. That’s what Judaism means by tikkun olam.

Our Bat Mitzvah Sara gave us an example today. “My mission,” she told us, “is to help minimize hunger as much as I can in Baltimore and around the world.” Putting food into the hands, mouth, and stomach of a hungry person is an act of tikkun olam. Tikkun Olam has to fix an actual problem, for an individual, for a group of people, and if we’re able to, for society or the world. So while solving hunger is a huge dilemma, feeding a hungry person is a concrete, attainable act.

Every day over one billion people go hungry. Twenty-five thousand people die each day due to malnutrition. Every six seconds a child dies from starvation More than 60 percent of those who are chronically hungry are women.

Each week, there are 50,000 people in Maryland relying on emergency food programs - food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters - to put food on the table for their families. More than one third are children and elderly.

In Israel, 600,000 children are considered at risk for hunger. 400,000 families are labeled as facing “nutritional insecurity.”

Today hunger is not a problem stemming from a lack of food, but from the challenges of how food is distributed world wide and the political, social issues of market access. And locally, in our Jewish community, hunger is also a function of economics, unemployment, underemployment, and escalating food prices.

In these weeks between Purim and Passover, food is central to our observances. As we begin the process of preparing our homes for Pesah, we come face to face with lots of food we haven’t, and soon can’t, consume. On Purim, Jewish tradition bids us give matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the poor which are intended to be not only necessary food, but special foods that bring joy as well as nourishment.

Before Passover, Jewish tradition bids us give ma’ot hitim, literally grain money. We donate our left over foodstuffs and our tzedakah for the sake of others who need to eat. These are both acts of tikkun olam because they seek to correct, for at least one person if not for many more, a specific problem.

In 1989, through the generosity of many, a hunger fund was established here at Chizuk Amuno as an act of tikkun olam. I must admit it is very satisfying when we administer this fund for the sake of those people and organizations we’re able to support. I’m not making an appeal, though a contribution to this cause at this season is both appropriate and welcome.

I do want to say two things. First, we need to know the values vocabulary of our tradition. We use words too loosely. An act of hesed involves personal service and caring. An act of tzedakah is a charitable gift, not necessarily requiring personal involvement. Tikkun Olam, which may incorporate acts of both hesed and tzedakah, is an action that resolves or fixes a specific problem for an individual, for a group of people, or, we can aspire, for the world.

In response to the recent devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Chile we may do all three. Many of us are giving tzedakah, some of us performing acts of hesed by being able to be personally involved in healing and helping victims and others of us are directing our response to specific fixes like housing, medical care, or hunger - acts of tikkun olam.

Second, I want to remind you.
Tikkun Olam isn’t only about social action and social justice. Celebrating Shabbat is an act of tikkun olam, for it allows the world and our souls their restoration and peace. Separating meat and milk when we eat is an act of tikkun olam, for honoring life, nurtured by milk, and symbolically separated from death, it corrects for the indignities done to living beings. Repaying a debt, returning lost or borrowed property are acts of tikkun olam, for they restore to an owner what is rightfully his.

Like the palindrome with which I began, acts of
tikkun olam strive to reverse what’s wrong in the world of our experience. As I reminded my high school seniors in class, Judaism is inherently optimistic. That’s why acts of tikkun olam are focused, specific actions in the whole of life’s settings. They get things done. They make things better; and they are vital to the hopeful visions of Jewish tradition and the promises in life we strive to keep.

© 2010 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman